Got to be Real: Professional Dancer or Eternal Student?

When we make the decision to become a professional belly dancer, we are doing so much more than wearing a fancy costume and shaking our hips. We are taking on the responsibility to represent a specific history, a culture and an art that deserves to be represented respectfully and beautifully. We are taking on the responsibility to stay authentic to the origins of this timeless art form, to be eternal students, and to always strive to spread the beauty of this art form with our audience.

Working as a professional dancer in the Los Angeles community for over 10 years, I have witnessed a lot of performances - some truly lovely, and some not. The difference between the memorable performances and the less-impressive was not attributed to the technique of the dancer(s), but to the authenticity of their performance. In the words of Cheryl Lynn, you’ve “Got to be Real!” Thus, I would like to share some of my own observations and experiences on this topic. Perhaps my point of view may resonate with you or inspire you to try some new things!

Know the Rules Before You Break Them

Many of us may remember the words of our favorite teachers telling us to “find your own style” or “make this step your own.” While it is important for all of us to have a unique quality or signature move that encourages viewers to remember our performances, it is just as important to make sure that we are not making choices to include things that may harm or decrease the authenticity of our dance. How do we keep our performances authentic? How do we know if our movements are “acceptable” or may be offensive? How do we know what is appropriate in the realm of a certain style? In my opinion, the only way to do this is by educating ourselves. Education can mean reading books, but it can also mean watching historic footage of dancers from the past. Education is attending workshops with authentic teachers who are respected for specializing in a specific style. Education includes reading about the history of various cultures, countries and important events groups of people faced. What we must always remember is that dance is a form of communication. All dance forms strive to deliver a message, convey emotion and provoke a reaction. If we consider folk dance for example, we have to understand that they are telling stories about experiences a group of people have gone through. We have to understand the meaning behind the movement. We have to understand the music that accompanies the get the idea. Long story short - if we plan to use our talent to share dance with others, we need to know the rules.

As you are reading this, you may be thinking to yourself, “What about creating new styles?” or “What if I want to be innovative and try something new?” If that is what you were thinking, then you and I are completely aligned! I think creativity in dance is a wonderful thing! If we think about all the possible styles of fusion that exist today, we can see that some dancers are tired or bored of the “traditional” style, and they are eager to come up with something new and be recognized for it. Furthermore, I would even say these fusion styles are encouraged as categories exist for them in many dance competitions. All I am saying is that it’s important to first know the traditional style thoroughly before trying to push boundaries. What typically results in dancers who start pushing boundaries (because they simply are unaware of their existence) is a poor performance, an offended/confused audience, and a bad reputation for the dancer. The good news is - resources are available and plentiful. The only thing that we need to do on our part is want to learn.

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.