By Kareenah (Karen Sandberg)
Danse Orientale contests are gaining popularity throughout the United States. I have participated in contests in the capacity of contestant, judge and observer. These contests have followed varying formats, allowing for a wide range of requirements, rules, and regulations.
There seem to be two basic formats most frequently offered: the first format offers three to four categories, usually consisting of troupe, duet, senior, and solo performances. Top scoring contestants advance to a final round after competing in a preliminary round of judging. The second format offers categories for solo performers covering different age groups, varying levels of expertise, as well as categories for troupes and duets. Preliminary rounds are deleted and results originate from a single round of competition.
To my mind, the second type of format is more advantageous. Entering contests is a costly investment. There is the expense of entry fees, travel, and lodging, publicity photos and costuming. For many, wages lost from time taken from work enter into the financial picture. With the elimination of a preliminary round, the entrant would be spared the expense of a second costume. This may seem a trivial item. However, we are all aware that desirable costuming is both time consuming and costly. In these recessionary times this is a real concern for many would be entrants.
Offering categories for varying levels of expertise (beginners, intermediate, advanced, etc.) allows for full participation by all students of belly dance. It is disheartening for a beginning student, who wishes to use a contest as a motivational tool, to realize that she will not be judged with a peer group. The student would then have the option of not entering a venue beyond her skill level.
However, spending many years in a highly competitive sport (show horses) made me realize there must be ample opportunity of reward to assure growth. If dancers at all levels feel that they have a chance to be recognized for their accomplishments, they will become more involved in the belly dance world. The resulting growth filters throughout the entire belly dance industry—increased attendance at dance festivals, increases in the size and number of classes and seminars, enlarged audiences at clubs, intensified sales for belly dance publications, costumers and related vendors.
Offering a category for children is especially fulfilling as it allows the next generation of dancers an opportunity to showcase their budding talents and enthusiasm. Children also need to be judged separately as the innocent youths they are instead of trying to imitate a more experienced, mature dancer.
Some contests require specific rhythms to be used in each performance. While I, too, like a dancer to be capable of interpreting different rhythms, I also believe that Middle Eastern Dance is an art form. As artists we cannot be “required” to dance to music that does not appeal to our own artistic expression or style of dance. Perhaps the contest organizers feel that by requiring specific rhythms, the performer presents a more well rounded program. On the other hand, should the performer use music that is neither imaginative nor diverse, this in itself would decide her placement in competition.
Music chosen for competition requires some consideration. The contestant, as a student of an ethnic dance, needs to be aware of the ethnic origin of the pieces she selects. Last year, I judged a contest in which the dancer used a classical Khaleegy piece. However, she used the music in the context of an Armenian/Turkish dance style and continued to perform movements not remotely related to the Khaleegy style.
The contestant who uses a vocal selection needs to have knowledge of the principal theme of the lyrics. Recently Middle Eastern dancers have come under fire for using pieces of music that have great religious significance in the Islamic world. We should take care not to insult the religious sensibilities of the culture and civilizations that gave birth to our art. More lightheartedly, I know of an instance in which a troupe selected a lively musical piece, only to find out that it was the fight song of a Saudi soccer team. Thankfully, there are several belly dance publications that are translating songs.
The use of “alternative music” should be restricted to a specific category. For years people involved in Middle Eastern dance have lamented of not being taken seriously as an ethnic dance form. Some of this lack of consideration can be attributed to the already-mentioned problem of ignorance of ethnic integrity. Our use of non-ethnic music certainly contributes to the issue of acceptability. When is the last time you saw flamenco dancers use the love theme from “Ghost” during a performance? Any companies of Russian folk dancers using New Age music lately? Under the guise of American style belly dance, we have managed to dissimulate an ancient, ethnic art. Just the fact that we live in a culture far removed from the Middle East will bring its own effects to our dance interpretation without the added variant of “alternative music.” However, I applaud those contests that offer an alternative music category in which to showcase our American ingenuity, creativity and humor.
With a few exceptions, contests depend on volunteers to fill their judges roster. Not only do these volunteers donate their time and energy, but frequently pay all expenses incurred as a result of travel, lodging and meals. These unselfish efforts are deeply appreciated.
With that in mind, contest organizers may want to consider the following in their selection of judges:
- Are the judges knowledgeable about different styles in Middle Eastern Dance? They will undoubtedly be asked to judge performers of Turkish, Armenian, Greek, Lebanese, Arab and Egyptian styles. With troupes there may be the added variant of Moroccan, Tunisian, Saudi and Ghawazee styles, to name just a few. The judges need an ethnic awareness as to the correctness of music, movement and authenticity of costuming.
- Assuming that the judges possess that knowledge, are they capable of relinquishing their own personal preferences of style while judging a contest? I have overheard a judge blatantly admit her dislike for Egyptian style dance. Hopefully, this judge, realizing her prejudice, would take it into account when judging a contestant. In most cases, the heart and soul (and hard earned money) into their performance. They deserve to be judged on the merits of their individual efforts regardless of the style of the dance.
- Having acknowledged that judges often volunteer their effort, I would still suggest that the judging panel change as often as is feasible. A static panel results in stagnant and predictable results. Contest organizers may be surprised by the number of receptive people available to fill these positions.
- Judges should be willing to “put their money where their mouths are” and sign their judge’s card. Contestants have a right to explanations of their scores. This valuable avenue of education should not be cloaked in anonymity.
Some contests require that the contestant perform a specific number of compulsory movements within their choreography. This presents some obvious problems. In Middle Eastern Dance there does not exist standardized movement terminology. Our tendency is to name movements after famous teachers/dancers or to use descriptive terms that help each individual recall a particular movement. What I perform and teach as a body wave (I personally do not use that terminology) may vary widely from another teacher’s interpretation of that movement.
Perhaps compulsory movements would work better if “school figures” were required as a prerequisite to contest entry. Each movement would need to be demonstrated by a dancer selected by the contest organizers. Then each contestant would be required to execute the movement before dancing a “free program.”
Would you presume to tell an artist what colors to use in their painting? If that artist uses only one shade of blue, the painting will undoubtedly collect dust in the basement. Similarly, if a dancer only uses one or two steps throughout her choreography, that performance will draw poor scores. The contest organizers need not worry themselves about requiring movements, as the lack of variety in any performance will speak volumes in itself.
My intent in writing this article is to present opinions and ideas that will open dialogue among organizers, judges and contestants of Danse Orientale competitions.