Got to be Real: Formula for Authenticity

In my previous article Got to be Real: Self-Reflection and Making the Moment Important, I mentioned a formula that I use for putting together my own performances. Again, this is not intended to say what is right or what is wrong, but I wanted to share some points that have helped me in my career, and I hope they can help you in yours too. To begin, I would like to loop this back to authenticity...Whether you are preparing a set for your regular club or putting together a customized show for a wedding, there are some universal things of which we should always be mindful. The first thing is the music. Traditionally, most of the songs we use for belly dance are originally in Arabic. There are many instrumental versions of songs, but I personally like to use some songs with lyrics in my show. This typically encourages audience engagement and catches their attention. But be careful! I highly recommend translating the lyrics of the songs to which you choose to dance. I cannot even count the number of times I have seen lovely, technical, talented dancers completely ignore the lyrics of the song and give a contradicting message through their performance. For example, if the song they choose contains words of sorrow, pain, and heartbreak, but they are dancing with a huge smile on their face, using “flirtatious” moves, this causes audiences to view this performance as ingenuine, lacking authenticity, and possibly even ignorant! The last thing we want to do is offend any of our audience members by doing something that misrepresents their culture. On the contrary, we want to show that the beauty of this art form continues to spread into the Western world. 

This directly relates to the second point of authenticity in performance - a dancer’s expression. I often like to think of dancers as artists who illustrate the music with the movements of their bodies. Different instruments inspire different types of movement, just like different lyrics provoke different emotions. In a good performance, these things are balanced and in-tune. And expression goes farther than a “wink and a smile.” Expression involves presence and poise. It involves becoming a different character, taking on a different persona. Something we don’t realize is that when we are on stage, people perceive us to be sparkling superstars because that’s what they see. And that’s what they should see. We can use our feelings to “dance what we feel,” but we should never break character or forget that we are entertainers. Thus, the expressions we use to embellish our dance should be relative to our music, to the dance style we are performing, and to the message behind each style. I realize that when I dance classical pieces, I tend to express a more vulnerable side of myself, but when I dance Saidi, I am much more playful. Yet, when I wrap up my set with a drum solo, I feel more powerful. 

Being able to express these different facets of our personality makes a huge difference in our performance and maintain the attention of our audience. Having dynamic expressions is just as important as having dynamic music in your performance. But again, these expressions cannot be forced or unnatural. The only way to channel these authentic expressions is through education and exposure, through learning and practice. 

The last element of authenticity that I want to talk about is costuming. If you are including a folkloric piece in your performance, it’s important to know the corresponding costume that goes with it. Granted, in our 30 min shows at clubs, we do not have the luxury of changing our costumes multiple times. However, being aware of the proper attire and taking advantage of using the appropriate costume when possible makes you more credible as a professional dancer to your audience. But not wearing a galabeya for a Saidi or Beledi piece is not as problematic as the “close to nothing” costumes dancers are wearing when dancing to Oum Kalthoum classics. I often say that the internet is both a blessing and a curse. We see hundreds of videos of dancers that go viral because of their less than classy demeanor and revealing costumes. Again, everyone is entitled to their own opinion about these dancers, and everyone should wear the costume that they feel comfortable in. 

It is important to know your audience. It is important to consider the event or occasion for which you are performing. Additionally, keep in mind that someone at your performances may be seeing belly dance for the first time. How do you want them to remember their first experience? How do you want them to formulate their opinions about this dance style? We take on a lot of responsibility when we take what we do out into the public. Decide carefully and act accordingly at all performances. Oh! And your “performance” doesn’t begin when your music starts or ends when you bow. It goes way beyond that. Your performance begins from the first interaction you have with the client when booking the performance and extends to all the way to post-show photos you take with your fans. So many times I’ve heard people give their opinions of dancers based on how pleasant or nice the dancer was, regardless of how they danced! Always be friendly and polite, but definitely stand your ground when you feel like you are being mistreated on the job.

Olga "Shamiram" Kramarova is a passionate performer, instructor, and choreographer whose knowledge of various cultural music and dance include Arabic/Belly Dance, Persian Dance, Armenian Dance, Dabke, Indian Dance, Russian Folk Dance, Brazilian Samba, Spanish Flamenco, Ballroom and Latin Dance. She is currently director, soloist, and choreographer of Negma International Dance Company and principal dancer in Roberto Amaral’s Spanish Dance Company. When she is not dancing, Olga works as a professor of Statistics, Research Methods, and Cognitive Psychology at California State University, Northridge, as well as UX Researcher for YouTube. She has performed and continues to perform in several local venues throughout California, as well as around the world.