Cultivating Professionalism

by Laurel Victoria Gray

Presented to the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, Orange Coast Community College, Costa Mesa, CA, on May 17, 1997

I have four basic suggestions for cultivating professionalism within our dance community. We need not reinvent the wheel; we can look at other professions and study the ethics by which their members conduct themselves.

For example in my field, the discipline of history, a scholar would have little credibility without the citations which show the source of knowledge, information and ideas she has used in her work. Footnotes and bibliographies not only show that a researcher has thoroughly investigated her topic, but they are ways of honoring the efforts of those who have already contributed to the field. The same holds true for other established art forms. Composers of symphonies or choreographers of ballets are always cited, always acknowledged, when their works are performed.

Foster a Culture of Gratitude

We need to foster a culture of gratitude. After all we did not, like Athena, spring fully grown from Zeus’ brow. We are the product of the teachers who have shaped us. We are part of a glorious lineage, a genealogy of dance which extends back to the long?dead, long forgotten women who first created these movements. My first Uzbek teacher was Kizlarkhon Dustmukhamedova.1 She was a student of the celebrated Bukharan dance family of Isakhar and Margarita Akilov. Margarita’s grandmother danced at the court of the Emir of Bukhara. And here I am, a “foreign devil” who can trace my dance lineage back to the Emirate of Bukhara. What a sense of honor and connection this knowledge brings.

That is the Central Asian side of my dance family. But another branch goes right back to the Los Angeles area. When I first started taking Middle Eastern dance in 1974 and 1975 at an Experimental College course offered at Occidental College, one of the instructors, Sally Ju, had studied with Marta Schill.

When I moved to Seattle and joined the Jalaal Middle Eastern Dancers, one of the members, Betty Bigelow, traced the group’s connection to a Seattle teacher named Mary Dossett who had studied with Jamila Salimpour. Betty recited our lineage in biblical fashion: “In the beginning there was Bal Anat, and Bal Anat was good. And lo, Bal Anat begat the Baladi Center Dancers, and the Baladi Center Dancers begat Tamzara and Jalaal.”2 And the line has continued: Jalaal begat Shahrazad and Shahrazad begat Binaat Shahrazad and Binaat Shahrazad begat Tanavar and Tanavar begat the Silk Road Dance Company—which is the dance ensemble I currently direct.

When we fail to acknowledge our teachers, we shame ourselves. We cut ourselves off from the very source of our dance. But when we honor our teachers, we honor our dance, we prove that our art is honorable. We show that our artists deserve respect. And we feel joy and pleasure in expressing our gratitude.

Support our Creative Artists

We nourish our profession by supporting the creative endeavors of other dancers and musicians. Our community has a reputation for honesty. At seminars, workshops, and dance camps, missing items usually turn up; they were misplaced, not stolen. Yet a lack of awareness of professional ethics results in dance theft. Entire choreographies are lifted from performance videos without the knowledge, consent, or compensation of the artist who created the work. The guilty parties are often not even cognizant that this constitutes not only an unethical act, but an illegal act. They simply do not realize that choreography is intellectual property protected by international copyright laws. Or, as the late A.J. Galambos expressed it, people who would never dream of shoplifting a loaf of bread would let their teachers die of hunger by failing to compensate them for their work.3

It takes an enormous amount of time, creativity, and financial resources to create a video. For example, my ancient Egyptian dance suite Egypta—named in honor of Ruth St. Denis’ eponymous work—premiered in Berlin last November. The total production cost of the first eight performances was 40,000 DM or about 30,000 US dollars. Last April, Egypta was presented again, this time in Memmingen, Germany. Those three concerts cost approximately 19,000 DM or roughly 12,000 US dollars. The cost of producing the video of this concert is yet to be determined, but we can add another $3,000 and round off the total investment to $45,000. If the German dancers sell the concert videos at a price where they can receive a net profit of $30 per video (after the expenses of advertising, duplicating, printing, and other related costs are taken out) they will have to sell 1,500 copies just to recover their initial investment. The sad truth is that they expect to sell only about 150 copies of Egypta. But we all know that there will certainly be more than 150 copies of Egypta in existence because of illegal duplications.

It is tempting to duplicate compact disks and audio and videos cassettes, but, as Visionary Dance Productions reminds us on their products, unauthorized copying “tends to deprive artists of their livelihood.” When we make illegal copies, we are supporting the companies which manufacture blank video and audio cassettes, but we are not supporting the artists whose creative efforts have so inspired us that we want copies of their work. And frankly, how much has Sony done for our dance community lately? Yet why do we support them and not our own artists? How can we ever hope to have truly professional Middle Eastern Dance artists if they cannot support themselves through their creative endeavors?

In the musical “Hello Dolly” the title character, Dolly Gallagher Levi, quotes her late husband, who said: “Money is like manure, you’ve got to spread it around and help young things grow.” When we spread around our money in ways that support other artists, we fertilize the seeds of professionalism in our dance community and actively participate in the development of our art. We become patrons of the art.

Create a Forum for Communication and Cooperation

As this conference so clearly demonstrates, we need an international organization for Middle Eastern dance. We need a forum where we can share ideas and disseminate knowledge. While we may have individual differences about teaching methodology, tradition verses innovation, dance terminology, historical research and other topics, we cannot expect to cultivate professionalism without a professional organization. The very fact that we have a diversity of opinions and approaches to the dance reveals the incredible richness of our art. So when the initial euphoria has vanished and we begin to experience friction in our organization, we must remember that diversity is good, that diversity is something to be embraced.

Those of us who have lived in the East will understand what I mean by “Oriental hospitality.” A guest is sacred. Let our organization be founded in that tradition. We must create a welcoming, nurturing environment, like a huge tent filled with the spirit of true Oriental hospitality where there is room for everyone: men and women, young and old, amateur and professional, traditionalist and innovator. And once inside, we will not confine people to one corner of like interests but allow them to mingle and explore, to grow as artists must.

Become a Positive Force for Change in the World

In unity there is strength. As an organization we will have a strong voice. We can speak with authority. We will be taken seriously because we take ourselves seriously. We will have the power to create positive changes in our society.

A few years ago in Germany a leading newspaper, the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, printed an article which described Oriental dance in disgusting and degrading terms. Within hours of the publication of that article, the faxes were flying as dancers in Frankfurt sent copies of the piece to their colleagues throughout Germany. The response was swift and powerful as the community pulled together to defend their art in print and presented informed arguments to the public in order to dispel negative stereotypes.

Laurel Victoria Gray

But in Montgomery County, Maryland—just a few miles away from our nation’s capital—an Oriental dance costume deemed acceptable by Egyptian standards is not permitted in a restaurant where alcohol is served. Many of the beautiful and elegant costumes we see on stage would not be allowed in Montgomery County where the dancer’s midriff area must be covered by opaque fabric. Is this out of concern for modesty? Is it because it would be too shocking for the American public to gaze on the female navel? Of course not. Everywhere television and print advertising reveal the contrary. No, it is because our dance is considered lewd and lascivious. Individual dancers are afraid to make a stand on this because they fear they will be castigated, lose their jobs in the restaurants or worse, lose their regular weekday jobs when caught up in a public scandal involving belly dance.

But imagine, if you will, an orchestrated campaign to change this ordinance backed by an international organization. The picture begins to look quite different. Instead of a single voice, we can speak out as a multitude. And why should we try to make a change in this ordinance? Most of you will never dance in Montgomery County. (It certainly does not affect me personally because my Persian, Uzbek, Turkic, and Russian Gypsy costumes do not expose the midriff.) We should act to change this ordinance because the backward mentality behind this ordinance affects us all. It treats our dance as something shameful to be hidden and covered. It places us in the same entertainment category as strippers.4

In Uzbekistan, women have died in order to win the freedom of performing in public. All artists sacrifice for their art, but how many of us would be willing to make this ultimate sacrifice? Yet women have done so. One of them was named Nurkhon, whose name comes from the word nur, or “light.” Along with Tamara Khanum, Nurkhon helped bring the dances of Uzbek women out of the ichkari, or women’s quarters, into the light of day by daring to perform those dances on stage. As punishment for bringing dishonor to her family by appearing in public unveiled, Nurkhon was stabbed to death by her own brother at the command of their father.

Nurkhon died less than eighty years ago. And today in many areas of the Middle East where our art was born, many unnamed Nurkhons continue to suffer. Female children are still subject to genital mutilation. In Iran, according to the Iranian Women’s Association of Washington, D.C., the age of marriage for girls has been lowered to nine.

We want to win respect for our dance, but first we must win respect for womanhood and for the divine feminine principle embodied in our dance. We find ourselves today in a position similar to the female abolitionists of some 150 years ago, who, like the Grimke sisters, wanted to speak out against slavery in America. They saw it was a destructive evil—not only for the slaves, but for those who enslaved them. But before these women could campaign for abolition, they first had to win the right to speak out at all. It was then considered an abomination for a woman to speak in public, something prohibited by scripture. Before the women abolitionists could hope to win freedom for others, they first had to win freedom for themselves.

When we actively strive to improve societal attitudes toward women, we bring light into the world. We create an enlightened civilization which can appreciate our art and rejoice in it. The novelist Edith Wharton wrote: “There are two ways to bring light into the world: to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.” At this conference, you all will become candles, bringing light back to the communities where you live. By cultivating professionalism in your communities, you can create mirrors to reflect the light of those candles, perhaps enough light to illuminate the world.


1. While Kizlarkhon Dustmukhamedova was my first Uzbek teacher, my first teacher of Uzbek dance was Mardi Rollow who gave a workshop to my dance troupe when she visited Seattle.

2. The Bal Anat legacy had another branch in Seattle. The group Tamzara “begat” Baba Karim, which later split into Karavan and Marrakech.

3. Hungarian born astrophysicist and teacher A. J. Galambos was the founder of the Liberal Institute of Science and Technology. His words were conveyed to me by one of his students, Leonor Q. Gray.

4. As Laura Rose Flynn, Delilah Flynn’s 15-year old daughter, observed, this ordinance serves the same function as veiling in the Middle East. It suggests that in an environment where alcohol is served, men will not be able to control themselves, so women—as temptresses—better cover themselves up.

Laurel Victoria Gray is an internationally acclaimed dancer, scholar, instructor and choreographer who has taught and performed throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Central Asia and Australia. Specializing in the cultures of the Silk Road, Ms. Gray has traveled to Uzbekistan nine times, lived there for two years, and appeared on television dance shows over a dozen times. She has lectured for the Middle East Institute and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, and has had many articles published. She also performed at the National Press club and at the new Uzbek Embassy for President Islam Karimov. Ms. Gray teaches Persian dance at the Iranian Community School, and is Artistic Director of the Silk Road Dance Company.

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