Delineating Professional Belly Dance

DEBORAH NEWBERG is an oriental dancer (aka belly dancer, Raks Sharqi dancer, or Middle Eastern dancer), choreographer, director of the Saltanah Dancers, and a belly dance instructor at Santa Fe Community College and DanceSpace. She discusses the question of what makes a professional through the lens of belly dance, and how that ecosystem might differ from other forms of dance. Her responses are part of a larger series dissecting what it means to be a professional dancer. To read other perspectives on the topic, click here.

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What does your current regular dance practice look like?

My personal practice involves:

  • Physicality: The physical aspect of the practice, i.e. yoga, working on strength, flow and connection, practicing the basic movements of my art form, inventing movements and approaches.
  • Musicality: Musical practice and study. Practicing percussion, both drums and finger cymbals. Studying the repertoire, structure, history and cultural context of Middle Eastern music. Practicing dancing that emerges from the music.
  • Improvisation and free dance, a lot of free dance!
  • Working on choreography.
  • Practicing with the props of my dance form: Dancing with veils and fan veils, balancing dance with a candle tray or sword, the traditional cane or stick dance, dancing with finger cymbals.
  • Cultural study: Continuing to learn more of the vast variety of traditional dance and music cultures of the Middle East. (And occasional enriching my study of other cultural dance forms.)

My practice for sharing with others includes:

  • Preparing to teach.
  • Choreographing for the troupe and for my classes.

Would you call yourself a professional dancer?

Yes.

What do you believe is necessary for a dancer to call themselves professional? Is part of being a professional getting paid?

Yes to the 2nd question; part of being a professional definitely is getting paid. You may not get paid for every gig, but if you never get paid, you are not a professional, even if you are a very good dancer.

Now the first question: What is necessary to be a professional oriental dancer (or belly dancer etc.)?

1) You get paid to dance. You are hired, booked for gigs etc.

2) You should have good physical, musical and cultural training in the dance form.

3) You should be a very good dancer who can dance within the traditional styles or the innovative new directions of the genre.

4) You should have knowledge of the dance and music cultures of the Middle East, the traditions and styles of the dance, including folkloric styles (even if you are a fusion dancer).

5) You need to have a growing understanding and deep love of Middle Eastern music. You need to be obsessed with music, in my opinion!

6) You should be in shape as a dancer, training physically, regularly. Your instrument should be tuned up.

7) You should be able to improvise to Middle Eastern music in a way that makes sense to people from these cultures. You need to bring the music to the people through your expression and enchant them.

8) You should be able to perform improvising to live Middle Eastern music.

9) You should be able to costume yourself, and create your visual presentation in a way that is beautiful and appropriate to the venue, occasion and music.

10) You should be able to present performances that are appropriate to the venue and occasion. There are so many different types of gigs: Middle Eastern weddings, parties for varied audiences, restaurant performances, theatrical or festival performances, “alternative” performances… all these require different types of costuming, music, performance modalities and etiquette. It takes some experience to do a good job in different circumstances.

11) You should be able to negotiate for gigs, interact comfortably with audiences, musicians, other dancers, and the community. You should be able to act ethically, in a respectful and respectable way. You need to be able to handle the unexpected.

12) You should be an entertainer.

13) You should be an artist!

Is there a certain amount of training involved in becoming a professional dancer?

Yes, and the training is not only physical. Musical training and knowledge of the cultures are essential! A dancer who can perform someone else’s choreography beautifully, but is not yet able to improvise or choreograph to the music of the cultures is not yet professional, in my opinion. In our tradition, the ability to improvise in a way that fits well with the music, and the ability to work with live music, is essential. The dancer is not just the instrument of the choreographer’s art, but creates her own work, in the moment, or in advance. (In professional folkloric Middle Eastern dance companies, dancers might only perform troupe dances, but even so, most have the ability to create dance in the moment that makes sense musically and culturally.)

Do you consider project-based work to be professional? Do you consider solo work to be professional?

In belly dance, we don’t usually talk about project-based versus solo work. We describe it as troupe (or dance company) vs. solo work. And either can be professional, or not professional. However, the nature of solo work and dance company work is different, because dance company work is almost always choreographed, and solo work might be choreographed, but very often is not.

Do you think the definition of a professional dancer is different than it was 25 or 50 years ago? If so, do you have any ideas why it might have changed?

In Middle Eastern dance, that is a very complicated question, and it depends on where in the world we’re talking about, what kind of cultural context, and what kind of venue. I couldn’t begin to tackle this question!

Are there instances when people apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it shouldn’t be applied?

Yes! Especially when it comes to dance companies, there can be a lack of clarity. Some dance companies call themselves “professional” even when they do not pay their dancers (only the director is paid). Other dance companies call themselves professional and the dancers are paid. This can create confusion when bidding on gigs. If Dance Company A has 12 dancers, but only the director is paid, while Dance Company B has four dancers, all of whom are paid, and yet both call themselves professional, confusion reigns! The company of 12 can then charge less than the company of four, and yet both are called “professional.” Ultimately, I think this muddy situation is not good for professional dancers.

Vice versa, are there instances when people don’t apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it should be applied?

Much less common than the previous example.

How might your cultural perspective – where you live, where you’re from, what form of dance you practice – influence what you think of as professional?

I’m a belly dancer, which is a very particular eco-system all its own!

What do you wish people wouldn’t assume about the dance profession?

  • I would like to see a greater appreciation for the diversity of multi-cultural dance. There has been progress, but I would like to see more respect and love for the dance and music cultures of the world.
  • I think many non-dancers focus exclusively on the physical aspect of dance, to the neglect of other aspects, respecting dance only for “difficulty” or “athleticism” or “the beautiful bodies.” These aspects are important, but are not the whole story. I would like to see more appreciation for artistry, musicality, individuality, expressive physicality and cultural connection. And “dance intelligence” is frequently not recognized as the valid and valuable intelligence that it is. The myth of the dichotomy between mind and body is so pervasive in our society that dancers are often thought to lack intelligence because they train their bodies. I hope respect will grow for embodied intelligence. Also, because a great many dancers are women, there is another prejudice that we encounter. The sexism that exists in our society tends to foster disrespect for professions that are predominantly female.
  • There is still a lot of body-shaming and judgment toward dance and dancers. There is still a misplaced attitude that dancing is for those with “perfect bodies,” and this is, of course, not true. Progress is being made in general, and I think belly dance fortunately has a greater range of acceptance of a variety of body types than some other dance forms (qualifier: in this country, for the most part).

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Deborah Newberg white sands

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