What makes an exceptional dancer (Invisible Magic)

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Egyptian Dance Icon, Samia Gamal, at her backstage room.

One of my dear students (from my PRIVATE ON LINE COURSES) asked me:

– What makes an exceptional dancer?

Difficult questions require difficult answers. Besides, I don´t think there´s a single answer to this question. Let´s just give it a try.

First, there are different concepts of  what an EXCEPTIONAL DANCER is. The audience´s culture, education level, mentality, religion and other factors dancers cannot control or predict shape, to a great extent, the way people define an EXCEPTIONAL DANCER.

Egyptians, for instance, value CHARISMA, UNIQUE FINGERPRINT, PERSONALIZED PRESENTATION, EMOTIONAL INTERPRETATION, CONNECTION/DIALOGUE WITH THE AUDIENCE (and musicians, if there´s an orchestra)and SOUL in every single movement/moment. They understand their dance as a LANGUAGE, not as an exotic aerobics ritual. Therefore, they expect the dancer to SPEAK that LANGUAGE.

Foreign audiences don´t have the same background as Egyptians. They tend to focus precisely on those things Egyptians laugh at: acrobatic movements; the already cited “exotic aerobics”; the amount of movements, props and impressive (?) tricks a dancer can pull out of her/his sleeve.

Having generalized, let me tell you there´s no perfect audience. My favourite are still Egyptians: I´ve spent almost a decade of my life performing for/with them and I know how deeply they understand what I do. There´s no bigger pleasure – bliss! – than performing for an Egyptian audience. Yet they´re not ideal. Conservative ideas, prejudices, religious rules, history of dance associated with prostitution and other sad pearls have tainted the way they see and treat dancers, no matter how talented they may be.

Having crossed the golden bridge – from Egypt to the World – I´ve been resuming what gathers EVERY audience as one; what makes everybody click, despite cultural & mentality differences. That common denominator may well be what makes an EXCEPTIONAL DANCER.

There are technical things to have in consideration: dominium of the dance vocabulary and its coordination with each music style; musicality; knowledge of cultural context; posture (physical, emotional, psychological, even spiritual); self-awareness; the ability to listen and co-create with the music, not only translate it in a passive process so many call “dance”; sensibility to details in musical composition & orchestration; interpretation skills and so forth. The list is huge! Between these, and many other skills, I´d pinpoint one: HAVING SOMETHING MEANINGFUL TO SAY through your dance. I´d also add: having a beautiful inner world; loving, strong, kind, open, alive. Egyptian Oriental Dance is an x-ray for everyone who dares practicing it – whoever you are will be totally exposed. If your inner gardens are empty or infested with worms, that´s what your audience will see when you dance. You gotta check out who you are so you know what your dance will speak about.

As it probably happens with every creative area, having something to communicate makes THE difference. Being an interesting, beautiful human being too.

If you feel you have nothing to say – offer your audience -, I´d suggest you don´t perform. You can always dance at home, for yourself. But, if you´re a professional dancer who performs but has nothing to say, you´re in trouble. If all you have inside is hate, frustration, anger and thirst for applauses, then you should probably work on yourself, as a person, and then think about dance.

Instead of blah, blah, blah (empty movements that mean nothing to the dancer and, consequently, to her/his audience), a PERSONAL LANGUAGE with a MESSAGE/STORY/INTENTION must be there. Instead of “look at me” cries, give them your overflowing & loving inner life. It´s rare. Almost unseen. It´s Egyptian Dance. 

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6 thoughts on “What makes an exceptional dancer (Invisible Magic)

  1. Great article! In my opinion the real clue is “to have something meaningful to say”.
    Technique and feeling are the same thing, we can’t separate them. The more mature you are, as a person and a dancer, the more things you have to tell.
    On the other hand, I think that young artists with less experience should also have their place, and both audience and colleagues should have the patience to give them that time.

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    • Thanks, dear Zahida.
      Yep: we´re in the same track.
      I clarify, once more: I´ve never said students/amateur dancers should not have the right to explore their creativity and even to perform, IF in the correct venue/context. I speak from a PROFESSIONAL point of view – that´s my default mode. So, when I say “dancers”, I have “professional dancers” in mind.
      You pinpoint a very interesting point that I actually didn´t touch in the article: “On the other hand, I think that young artists with less experience should also have their place, and both audience and colleagues should have the patience to give them that time.” No doubt. We´ve all been amateurs, one day. We´ve all been begginners without a clue of what we´re doing. And it was thanks to patient, kind and supportive teachers/more experienced dancers that we could grow. I am totally with you on this point.

      It´s amazing to see how an increasing number of Oriental Dance lovers (from amateur to professional level) are waking up, opening their hearts and minds and searching for “something more” than the exotic acrobatics we tend to see. Egyptian Dance is so much more. WE, human beings, are so much more.

      Cheers, dear Zahida, and thanks for your insight.

      Love,
      JoanaSaahirah

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  2. A thought about “If you feel you have nothing to say – offer your audience -, I´d suggest you don´t perform. “……informal haflas or recitals are perfect for the less experienced dancer to ‘get their chops’ going… While the experience of watching student dancers, varies widely, depending on their instructor, the students’ commitment and effort, etc etc….it is part of the confidence-gaining process for a performing artist. Hopefully the student will be attenuated to more than just applause — that is, how she/he feels while performing. And not just beating oneself up when the choreo doesn’t come to them. One needs to know the music first. This, in my observation, is a key missing element. It’s about memorizing movements and hopefully sync’ing up with others in the performance, if the student is in a group. Teachers seem to focus on (and/or be forced to focus on) mechanics more that teaching listening. That’s where the ‘rubber meets the road’ for a dancer who is truly aiming to present a performance worth remembering.

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    • Dear Fmelias,
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      I think I´ve just answered a similar kind of comment (please check above; my answer to Kendra).
      Sure there are contexts – DIFFERENT contexts – for all kinds of dance and demands. People who dance at home – great. Students who dance at schools and their recitals – great, as long as those recitals are not advertised and sold as PROFESSIONAL shows. Here lies the problem. Neighbors, friends, strangers buy a ticket to some of these recitals, expecting to watch what´s advertised: an Oriental Dance show. They end up disappointed, watching students who are not prepared for the stage on any level. This same audience will spread the word about what they saw. This word will affect, negatively, every professional of the area. Have I made myself clear?

      I´m not against amateur performances as long as they are put into context and the waters are separated.

      Now: you mention something VERY important: “to know the music”. I´d add to know how to LISTEN and INTERPRET the music. It takes many years of serious study, immersion and luck with the teachers you come across. And yes, it´s a major problem for dancers worldwide. Everybody seems to be hysterical about memorizing choreographies but there´s so much more than that…so much more that is ignored…

      “Teachers seem to focus on (and/or be forced to focus on) mechanics more that teaching listening.” – NO DOUBT. I couldn´t agree more. Teaching Oriental Dance is so much more than throwing technique and choreographies on students heads. Don´t get me wrong: I LOVE technique and choreographies. I just know they´re not enough. Art is beyond all that. Once more, I´m speaking from a professional perspective. Developing people´s sensibility, ears, creativity, individuality, knowledge of the dance context as well as their own internal context and the list goes on and on. Dance is more than just steps.

      It´s clear there is a rising consciousness starting to show up in dancers/students/teachers around the world. It´s coming. Its here. Let´s celebrate, sisters!

      Love,
      JoanaSaahirah

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  3. I loved this article. One thing, however, is that Egyptian dance is primarily done in the home in more private familial environments. That is one aspect that has allowed it to retain this aliveness and raw power. There is nothing ‘un-beautiful’ about dancing at home. In fact, true beauty doesn’t exist for an audience. It simply is. I think that ‘invisible magic’ is simply a connection to something larger than yourself. Its a surrender and a letting go. All human beings have this potential but Egyptians, professional or amateur, just happen to be very good at that when it comes to dance.

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    • Dear Kendra,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Let´s me just clarify a few things:
      I´ve never said the domestic side of Egyptian Dance was “un-beautiful” or irrelevant. In fact, some of the best dancers I´ve had the chance to observe in my years of career and life in Egypt were amateur, “home made” dancers with loads to share and to teach me. Having stressed this point, let me also tell you the following:
      As a professional dancer who knows about the History of her craft, past and present, there´s no denying THE STAGE was the decisive push towards what we now know and practice as ORIENTAL DANCE or, better said, Modern Oriental Dance. The lady who initiated this shift from traditional to modern was Badia Masabni and her work – for the stage, for a professional context – explains my point (I´d suggest you study the subject so you can understand my point).

      On another level, you mention that ” true beauty doesn´t exist for an audience”, seeming to ignore I am – I´ll repeat myself – a professional dancer who speaks and writes from the perspective of a professional dancer. Although we all like to think we only dance for ourselves, once you call yourself a professional and you live for/from dance, you DO dance for an audience and you cannot ignore the way you reach it (or fail to reach it). That´s the point of view from where I write, most of the times.

      From an amateur point of view, the conversation changes. We can offer ourselves the luxury to dance ONLY for ourselves with no concern for the exterior world.

      Last point about the so called ability Egyptians have for dance. Just because someone is Egyptian, it certainly doesn´t mean she/he CAN dance greatly. There is a context where Egyptians are born and raised – that context influences the way they listen and move. No doubt. But that, in itself, is not enough to make great dancers.

      I don´t mention it in this post but I´ve mentioned it in other articles: there´s not ONE Oriental Dance. There are many levels and contexts for this dance. Speaking on the artistic, professional level doesn´t mean I disregard the others. It just means I speak lowder about the world I know best 😉

      Wishing you a happy and free dance – always,

      JoanaSaahirah

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