I Will Never Be That Good
I will never be that good. I will never be successful.
I hear this a lot in many circles: in writing, in dance, in most other creative outlets I’m a part of or know people in. I see famous authors tweeting out that their writing is crap because it isn’t like someone else’s. I see dancers desperately trying to dance/look just like their idols, but lamenting over how they can’t do one trick or another.
I, too, find myself watching other dancers, or reading other people’s books, and putting myself down the entire time: “I can’t do that trick.” “I can’t write such evocative prose.” “I will never be able to do the splits.”
I get depressed over the lack of time I have to completely change the direction of my dancing and writing skills to go after the ones I do not possess, to be just like someone I admire. I feel the pull to dance just like that famous dancer or write just like that famous writer. The thought presses down on me: I will never be successful unless I change how I do my art.
I’m going to borrow a phrase from British English here: bollocks.
We should never change ourselves or our art to please others.
My prose is not flowery and flowy. I will never make you cry over the beauty of my words. My stories hit you in the face like a ton of bricks, ripping open feelings and picking through them like birds with entrails. This does not make me a bad writer. My dance is not light and feminine and playful, nor is it hip hop or ballet. My dance is a powerful blend of styles, with knife-sharp isolations and musicality (also kind of like a ton of bricks to the face). This does not make me a bad dancer.
I may lament those lacks, and feel the pressure to change, but that’s not going to do me any favors. While I might not make you cry over the beauty of my words, I can certainly disturb you with the dark imagery I spill onto the page. The important message here is that neither is better than the other.
To force myself to change these things about my art would change me and how I express myself. It would be inauthentic. The one thing that we do not seem to tell other artists enough is that being yourself will lead to your success.
Authenticity is a cornerstone of artistic expression. Art comes from within, and people tend to notice when artists aren’t “feeling it.” To me, authenticity is part of that elusive “it factor” that some artists have. We can’t describe “it” but we sure know star power, the “it factor,” when we see it.
Once I came out as trans, people started telling me that they have noticed how my dancing has changed, and that has changed how they see me as a dancer. I was literally told that they can’t believe the progress I’ve made as a dancer in the short time since I’ve come out. While some of that is definitely training, a lot of it is being authentic. I can finally express, through my art, who I really am inside.
In my writing, I got nowhere with stories about women. I then started writing trans-related stories and essays, and suddenly I’ve sold three of them. All I did was refocus my efforts into being authentic and into writing characters that I identified with because I was just like them.
So don’t worry about whether you can do this trick or that trick, or write that genre or that way. If you really want to learn it, that’s great. I’m always all about challenging ourselves to stretch and learn and grow (we should always be learning!). But if it feels inauthentic, or doesn’t work with your style, stop saying how bad you are for not being just like that other artist. Stop putting yourself down because you aren’t just like some famous person. Be you instead, and train to be the best you you can be. No one else can be you.
Book Review: The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers
“Belly dance is for women only.”
I see this all over Facebook, all over the Internet, and it’s unfortunate because it’s not at all true.
Anthony Shay is an associate professor of theatre and dance at Pomona College, and has written many works on Middle Eastern dance, including belly dance. This particular book is about the lives of dancers throughout the Muslim world (the full title is The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Middle East), including some information about Greek and Roman performers and how their attitudes towards dancers and performers persisted through the years.
This book was recommended to me by Abigail Keyes, after voicing my frustrations with dancers who only believe that women have ever performed belly dance. Shay disproves it as most of the book is focused on the male performers during these times. Women, depending on what era is being discussed, primarily only danced for other women (or performed as prostitutes), leaving men to perform both as men and as cross-dressed women, or potentially even trans women, in public. In some cases, the men did not try to “pass” as women, merely wore more feminine (or ambiguous) clothing or acted feminine. But in other cases, they did try to emulate women, as with the hijras and khusras. I am sure that modern belly dancers would be scandalized to read this book, to discover how closely tied prostitution, stripping (yes, stripping*), and Middle Eastern dance (the precursors to modern belly dance) actually are.
Shay takes us on a trip through history, starting with the Greek and Roman dancers (frowned upon), into the Byzantine Empire, medieval Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and into modern times. In each era, he describes the “contours of masculinity” (how masculinity was defined during that time) and how dancers and other public entertainers were perceived by the government and the general public. He also includes descriptions of the dances and costumes from those eras, many of which would be totally familiar to the modern belly dancer. In one such passage, Shay is quoting from dance historian Metin And: “Generally in the dancing both the boys and girls marked time with finger snapping or with some instrument such as a short tiny stick, clappers…or small metal finger cymbals. Their dancing consisted of leisurely walks…short mincing steps, half falling back and then recovering themselves…a good deal of stomach play, twisting of the body, falling upon the knees with the trunk held back until the head nearly touched the floor…” (from And’s Istanbul in the 16th Century: The City, The Palace, Daily Life, 1994) Does any of this sound familiar? To me, clearly this is a belly dance performance very similar to what we could see today. “Stomach play” is clearly meant as the “belly” part of belly dance. As for the rest, we clearly have the use of finger cymbals, a backbend on the floor (maybe even a Turkish drop?), and twisting movements. Sounds like the basics of a belly dance performance to me (keep in mind, this is from the 16th century, and included both girls and boys in the description).
I believe that this book should be required reading for all dancers. While it is short and (strangely) expensive, the information inside is invaluable. One of the biggest controversies around and criticisms of modern belly dance is cultural appropriation. We must learn the history of the dances we perform and claiming that belly dance is for women only is false and appropriative. I would go so far as to say that it is Orientalist (the portrayal of women dancing in harems, the exoticization of coupled with the de-sexualization of belly dancers, the erasure of men and male homosexuality in dance, etc.). It was fascinating to learn about how men and masculinity (and homosexuality) were perceived in different eras, and how male dancers were both celebrated and reviled. What is most interesting to me, and is probably a very sensitive subject that I do not want to get into here (and is way beyond the scope of a blog post) is the erasure of male homosexuality in modern times in order to appease the West and our sensibilities and to appear “modern.”
I’m linking to a YouTube video of one of performances that he referenced in the book below. Shay discusses young men dancing for other men (the audience in this video as far as we can tell is all male) in the book.
I would love to know your thoughts on the book. Have you read it?
*I cannot find much about it online, but this was the “Bee” dance, in which a performer would act as though a bee had gotten into their clothing and would strip the layers off in a kind of silly tease. It is literally referenced in the index as “Egyptian striptease dance.”
I’m a Trans Masculine Queer Belly Dancer
I heaved my luggage – full of dance gear – into the train car. Luckily, the car wasn’t very full and I was able to find a seat. I collapsed into it, removing my gloves and shoving them into my pockets. I was cold, having stood on the train platform for longer than usual. I adjusted my scarf to protect my face – covered in stage makeup – from smudges.
“What’s up, fag?” whispered the man behind me, right in my ear.
I stiffened, not knowing what to do. But out of the corner of my eye, I could see his family – his mother and another woman I assumed was a sister – laughing hysterically into their hands, eyeing me disdainfully. I decided to ignore them.
I didn’t hear their later mutters and giggles, as I shoved earphones in and started listening to the music I was learning for an important show: The Artists Against Hate Inauguration Protest show.
There is a silver lining to this story. I’m trans masculine, which means I was assigned female at birth (AFAB), but I identify as being masculine, not a woman. In May 2016, I had top surgery to remove my breasts. I’ve been on testosterone since April 2015. Unfortunately for me, the testosterone has taken its sweet time and I’m only just now getting facial hair and the masculine musculature I’ve been waiting my whole life for.
But the fact that this guy mistook me for a gay man – a fag – was a first for me. It was a landmark night, one I will never forget, for good or ill. He was partially right. I don’t lay claim to the label of “man” yet (it’s loaded with a lot of baggage I haven’t completely worked through and might never), but I definitely am queer and masculine. He recognized that, and it frightened him enough to harass me for it. To him, I was a threat – a man in makeup.
My Inauguration Protest show piece was for people like him, that random bigot on the train.
Three weeks before the show (and about a week before the train incident), I was looking up songs to perform to. I needed new inspiration, not only for this show, but also for upcoming shows. I wanted something different, something no one had heard before. I dove into my Spotify “Might Be Cool to Dance to” playlist and found a song by an artist called Garek. I had initially thought I would use it for drag, but as I listened to more of his work I realized I could dance to it too.
I realized that here was an openly gay man singing about being gay, about being bullied and called names for being queer, and that was exactly what I was looking for. One song had a lyric that stood out to me: “Would I be a better son with a gun in my hand?”
I chose that one to be my protest song, because it hit on many issues that we are all struggling with right now: toxic masculinity, guns, and being bullied for being LGBTQ+. It spoke to me personally because I have been struggling with calling myself a man and what it means to be (queer and) masculine in a world filled with examples of how masculinity can be damaging to the world and to both men and women. Garek frankly sings about being gay and how disappointing that can be to parents wanting manly behavior out of their sons. And how damaging that is.
I made a vow then and there that I would put queer artists before all others this year. I will still dance to songs by other people, of course, but my priority will be to dance to those musicians who are openly queer.
And so when that random bigot whispered a slur in my ear, I put on the music I was learning for the Inauguration Protest show. And my thoughts just before going on stage for the protest show itself turned to that man and others like him: people who are afraid of queer men, who are threatened by a different kind of masculinity. I feel sorry for them, trapped in narrow definitions of manhood that hurt not only others (who are victims of their pain) but themselves as well.
But once I stepped out onto that stage, my thoughts were for others like me: queer men and masculine-of-center people (however they identify) who have been called names, been bullied, have sat with a gun or a knife in hand and wondered if death would be the release we had been waiting for, or questioned their value or position in life just because of who they love or what their bodies look like. You’re not alone. That dance was for us.
I didn’t worry about dancing like a man. I didn’t worry about whether I looked too feminine in all that makeup, or whether people would hate me or accept me. I danced to heal myself, and to protest and highlight the increase in bullying me and other LGBTQ+ people have received at the hands of bigots emboldened by the rhetoric of our new President. We must stand up for ourselves, we must fight back, we must show the world that it is not okay to bully, to call people slurs, to make them afraid.
I am not afraid. I will stand with you. I will make art and dance to show the world this queer male body and just how strong it is.
Where Do You See Belly Dance?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the future of belly dance. The belly dance community was recently rocked by some controversial notes on Facebook (now deleted) questioning fusion’s role in the belly dance community and the erroneous linkage of fusion’s popularity to the decline of belly dance in general. Some other discussions have popped up around the decline of belly dance, the boredom of audiences with belly dance, and the lack of paid performance opportunities.
I had initially written a fairly inflammatory response to these issues, but have decided to, instead, feed the right wolf.
Where do YOU want to see belly dance headed? Do you want to see it go down in flames, with petty in-fighting driving away potential customers and supporters, or do you want to see it thrive and grow, with dancers working together to make belly dance appealing to all audiences?
Personally, I want belly dance – all dance, all dancers – to succeed. I want good paid opportunities, free of harassment. I want students to be supported in whatever style they choose, without teachers’ egos stifling their growth. I want belly dance to be taken seriously as both a cultural artform to be carefully preserved and a new, emerging vehicle for artistic expression. I want full classes and thriving festivals. I want traditional-style dancers to be respected and to eagerly share their wealth of knowledge. I want fusion dancers to want to learn the roots of the dance and to take the issues surrounding it seriously.
To throw another cliche out there, a rising tide raises all boats. If we support one another, if we put aside useless style wars, then we can focus our limited time and resources into making belly dance succeed. I refuse to spend my energy on tearing other dancers down, on arguing over who is or is not doing belly dance “right.” If I’m arguing online, I’m not doing belly dance at all!
So if you want to succeed in belly dance, if you want belly dance to grow and gain a wider acceptance, then put your work in towards that. Stop feeding the wrong wolf and giving the negativity and fighting all of your energy. We can only do this together.
photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar Fighting wolves via photopin (license)
Tribal Revolution Piece
Most of you know by now that I am in the process of transitioning. I am in an interesting point in my life and career where I can basically reinvent myself. It is both frightening and exhilarating. I fear for what this will do for my belly dancing career (do I try to continue to dance while presenting female, which I’d rather not do, or go whole-hog male and risk alienating people? In between, which is where I’d rather be, is probably just too confusing for most of the general public).
But I cannot lie to myself or others just to preserve my career. I’ll build it from the ground up, once more, if I have to. Belly dance and my identity both mean that much to me.
The struggle to be at peace with my body has been a long, hard, and almost disastrous one.
I hated my boobs with a passion that is difficult to describe. They didn’t belong on my body. They were two large, non-cancerous tumors that caused me emotional and physical pain. I hated the way I looked in costumes, I hated how I always had to accommodate them in order find costumes that fit. Whenever I had costume issues, it was always the bra. So imagine my discomfort participating in an art-form that values big breasts.
This is in no way meant to shame people who have big breasts. They’re great. Just not on my body.
When I realized that Tribal Revolution was going to be where I would most likely perform for the first time after my top surgery, I knew I had to tell my story there.
My journey through my belly dance life and my transition are one in the same. One fed the other. And so I have fused those two stories together into one piece.
The piece I will be dancing at Tribal Revolution is not only a journey through all the belly dance forms I have learned and loved, but also the journey to love my own body. There was pain and heartbreak at the beginning. When I first started dancing, I hated my body and covered it up as much as possible. But with some inner work, I made, at best, a guarded peace with it and began to perform.
As much as I love traditional style dancing, it wasn’t the best fit for me (at least then; I’m looking forward to exploring it more now through a male lens). It was girly and flirty, which was fun sometimes, but entirely not who I am. It was difficult to fake. So I moved on to fusion (mostly). At first, I tried to fit into other dancer’s ideas of fusion. I learned all I could about other fusion dancers’ styles. But that wasn’t a fit either, though fusion caused less confusion and pain than the traditional styles.
ATS® has given me another home, with people I love to dance with. They’ve been so welcoming, even though this was when the struggle to be me has hit me hardest. With the highest highs come the lowest lows. Despairing, I kept dancing. It was the only thing I could do.
And now, my body has changed. My dancing has changed. I can finally be who I am meant to be, both male and female and neither, and all styles fused together as one. This has been a huge relief for me, freeing me from the chains that bound me to a body I didn’t want to inhabit.
I hope that you can come and see it live, and I hope you truly do enjoy it. This piece is deeply personal and means a lot to me.
The Five Year Plan
It’s that time of year again and everyone is making their New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, not everyone sticks to them, me included. So here’s something a little different to try for this year.
I have a five year plan. Or, at least, I did five years ago. It’s time for me to make another one, but before I do, I wanted to share what my last five year plan was. I hope that this is helpful to all the aspiring professional dancers out there, and also to already-professional dancers who might be ready to take the next big step.
So what’s a five year plan? Basically, it was one of those silly questions you get in job interviews: Where do you see yourself in five years?
It seems so simple, and it can be, but many people get lost in the details, or get so overwhelmed by what they must get done in those five years, they don’t do any of it. But you have to start somewhere. The old cliche is a good one: The journey of the thousand miles starts with the first step. Or as my old chemistry professor asked, “How do you eat an elephant? Very slowly! One bite at a time!”
The first step is, what is the main thing, the big thing (the “elephant”), that you want at the end of those five years? It should be a big dream, but not too big (we’ll get to the unrealistically big dreams in a minute). It should be a realistic goal, and this is where it gets hard. Many of us don’t know what realistic goals are when we first start out. Pick ONE thing. Just one.
I’m here to tell you it’s okay if you aren’t sure what is realistic right now.
What’s great about the five year plan is that it can be edited and changed with no feelings of “I’m failing in my resolutions.” A five year plan knows that life happens, and plans change, and that’s okay. So remember to be flexible, be honest, and be realistic. You have five years to make it happen, so a setback is not such a problem as it is with one year resolutions.
My five year goal was to teach at the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive. It was a big dream, requiring a ton of hard work, but it was realistic. The next step is figuring out what you need to do to get that goal. For me, I knew that I was going to have to up my game if I wanted to be a good enough dancer to be chosen to teach at LVBDI. So I was going to have to practice. A lot. I told myself that I needed to be the best dancer I could be, and, realistically, that meant practicing. Every day. Every. Day.
I was also going to need teaching experience. Luckily, for the LVBDI, you need five years of teaching experience. Perfect fit! So I needed to start teaching, which meant I had to know what I was going to be teaching. Lesson plans, research into how to teach, thinking about what my body was doing and how I convey that to others, all were part of what I had to figure out before I could teach.
Of course, I also needed students. Which meant I needed to find a place to teach and warm bodies to fill the studio. This was actually one of the easier goals, but it was still something I put down on the list as a step in the right direction. It also meant I had to learn at least a little bit about marketing.
Furthermore, I decided I was going to need more experience in teaching workshops before I could realistically be chosen to teach at a large event like the LVBDI. So I needed to find smaller, more local places where I could present workshops. And then work my way up, doing larger and larger festivals as I went. That meant I needed workshop ideas, and I needed to get good at not only writing descriptions but also not being shy about asking people to be a part of their event.
But before that, I needed to get my name out there. I needed to be seen, to have video of good performances, and a good reputation as a dancer and performer. That meant I had to find places to dance, get video, and let people know what it was I did and that I was a professional.
It sounds like a lot, but let’s break it down. In each step, there needs to be an action that goes towards making that step. This makes things seem easier to handle, like bite sized pieces instead of staring down an entire elephant.
Main goal: Teach at the LVBDI
- Step: improve dancing skills
- Action: practice and hone skills
- Step: Gain teaching experience
- Action: Create lesson plans
- Action: Find a place to teach
- Action: promote classes to get students
- Step: Gain workshop teaching experience
- Sub-step: Need to build reputation as dancer and teacher
- Action: Perform more and record
- Action: Teach local workshop(s) at home studio
- Action: Apply to teach at larger festivals
- Sub-step: Need to build reputation as dancer and teacher
Once that is laid out, you can fill it in even further. How much practice do you need to do in order to reach that goal? That will probably vary, but I started out with 20 minutes every single day. It increased from there, of course, but that was where I started. I built a consistent practice that was easy to maintain. I began offering classes and started getting students. I taught a local workshop, and then another one. Then I landed my first festival workshop gig. It wasn’t a big festival, but that’s not a big deal. It still got put on my resume. No step was too small!
In my fifth year of teaching, I did it. I put in my application to teach at the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive, and I got in! My five year goal was complete, and I could barely believe it. But looking back, it was a lot of work. It was a lot of steps.
But wait, there’s more! Remember that big, big dream I mentioned earlier? Well, there should always be that one dream, you know, the one that might never happen. It should be the pie-in-the-sky dream, the reaching for the stars dream. It might be completely unrealistic (either in five years or ever), but that’s okay. Why? Because we need to dream big. If we keep all of our dreams small, we might never achieve what we want. It’s good to take risks (within reason), to stretch ourselves, and to do things we normally wouldn’t do. Then, we need to keep our eyes open for opportunity for this big dream. I’m not saying do whatever you need to do to make it happen, but be open to getting in the back door, or going about something in a way that might be different from everyone else. Don’t let opportunity slip by because you think you might not be ready.
One of my friends once posted on Facebook that if they had waited until they felt they were ready for that big gig, they never would have done it. They were approached to do a bigger gig than they were ready for, but they took it anyway, and made it happen. And it opened doors they would never have thought were even there. The definition of a professional isn’t just being paid for your work. It’s also about putting in the work to do what you need to do.
My big dream? Dance and/or teach at Tribal Fest.
Guess what? I got that one, too. Never in a million years would I have thought I would get in to teach, but I did. I took a gamble, applied, and got in. The risk paid off. Was I ready to teach Tribal Fest? Maybe, maybe not. But I made it happen, because I wasn’t going to pass that opportunity up when it came within reach.
And what if you fail? In a five year plan, there is no failure. It’s possible that you might not make your big goal in those five years, but look at all the other steps you did to get there. None of that is wasted effort. If you didn’t make it in five years, it probably meant it was just too big of a goal. At the end of each year, it’s a good idea to sit back and reevaluate. Is the goal still realistic? Did you get it in two years, or are you staring down the fifth year and you’re not even half way there? It doesn’t really matter. If you aren’t there yet, make that five year plan a seven year plan instead. It doesn’t mean you failed, it just meant you underestimated the time it would take to get there.
For me, in my fourth year, the LVBDI announced that its tenth year was going to be its last. It meant that, through no fault of my own, I would never make my dream happen. It was a crushing blow, but it wasn’t a failure. So I decided to try something else. But before I really figured out what that was going to be, the next year of the LVBDI was announced. That was a big sigh of relief you just heard!
So what is your five year plan? Remember, keep it small and manageable, but don’t forget about that big dream. Make it happen.
Queer Belly Dance
Or…how to be more welcoming and inclusive to dancers of all body types.
A lot of attention has been on the trans community recently. There was my own coming out to the belly dance community, the reveal of Caitlyn Jenner, the death of Holly Woodlawn, etc. For some, this sudden-seeming change can be confusing. I have gotten some questions about inclusiveness, and I have seen others starting to come out of the woodwork asking about inclusion for queer people in the belly dance world.
First, what, exactly, do I mean by queer and trans? It is out of the scope of this blog and this post to give you an entire run down on these terms, but I will sum up. These words are umbrella terms, and so have many meanings to many people. Queer is a term that is often used to describe the entire LGBTQ+ movement, but does still have some negative connotations to some people. Not all LGBTQ+ people will want to be called queer (though the “Q” in the alphabet soup does stand for “queer”), and that’s fine. It can refer to either a person’s sexual orientation (who they are attracted to sexually or romantically) or to their gender identity or expression (which are not always the same). Personally, I am genderqueer, which means that my gender is neither male nor female. Trans (sometimes written as trans*, though this is falling out of favor) is actually a chemical term meaning across (cis is the corresponding term for something that is on the same side, so cis gender people are those whose gender identity/expression corresponds to the body they were born into). In general, a trans person is someone whose anatomy doesn’t always match with the gender they are. Sex and gender are two different things. There are more than two sexes (look up intersex). Not all trans people are “trapped in the wrong body” and not all trans people will “transition.” Gender identity and expression are HIGHLY INDIVIDUAL, which is what makes this all so confusing for many people.
For the purposes of this article, I will mostly be talking about trans and genderqueer people.
So what does that mean for you, reader? It depends. If you are a student, it may mean that you will share studio space with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a professional performer, it may mean that you will share dressing room space, take classes with, and possibly tour with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a teacher, it may mean that you will be teaching a queer dancer. The needs of the queer dancer will depend on your relationship to them and how open (or out) they are about their identity.
How do we go about creating a more accommodating space for queer and trans dancers? I’ve outlined some tips below, though this will not be exhaustive. Again, every queer and trans person is different. Just as though you have to accommodate for dancers with bodies of different sizes and shapes, so you will have to accommodate us in your spaces. Some people won’t like it, and that’s unfortunate. But the tide is changing, and you can decide to stand against it or go with it.
This is the big one. Recently, Houston lost its Equal Rights Ordinance due to hate groups spreading misinformation (and downright lies) that the ordinance allows men to go into women’s bathrooms in order to assault women and girls. Of course, no one wants that (and assault in bathrooms was, still is, and always will be illegal). But trans women are not men, just as trans men are not women. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. Let me repeat that. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. If you find someone who “appears” to not belong in the bathroom, it’s not your business. They are merely using the bathroom that they feel most comfortable in. Believe me, they are there to pee and that’s it.
For studio owners, you will probably have to check your city or state’s laws regarding bathrooms. Some states or cities allow for “one-holers” (bathrooms that do not have stalls, but are self-contained bathrooms like the one you have at home) to be labeled as unisex. Obviously, this is probably the best option, since it alleviates the discomfort of gender non-conformists in forcing them to choose a bathroom (and risk being called out for using the “wrong” one). If you do have bathrooms with stalls, they usually must be labeled “Men” and “Women.” If that is the case, please be aware that the people who are in that bathroom might have different plumbing than you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong there or that they are there to stare at you (or assault you). They are there for the same reason you are.
Or you can defy state law like Etsy has…
I’m going to get a little judgmental here, and I’m only a little sorry about that. If you are a professional dancer (or are aiming to become one) you really should get used to having dressing rooms that are unisex. That’s show biz: small changing rooms, fast changes, no time to look at other peoples’ junk. Dancers are not there to ogle other people’s bodies. They are there to get changed and maybe warm up. I find it a little disturbing and outrageously unfair that so many of our male dance friends are forced into broom closets or bathrooms (which a female dancer would rightly pitch a fit over) to get changed because the women are not comfortable getting changed in front of them. I understand that to some degree…but if you are a professional, you should act like one. Changing rooms are rarely designated by sex, and it’s been that way since the beginning of theater. Get used to it. That said, most queer and trans dancers would probably feel more welcomed if we didn’t think we were going to be judged on our bodies or relegated to a bathroom stall to get changed. So some people might be more comfortable with a changing space where they can be alone. If you have space to offer a choice, that is probably ideal.
Of course, not all trans or queer people will want to be forced to change alone, but be allowed to change with everyone else. We should be willing to accommodate that. It is cruel to force someone to change alone, away from the camaraderie of the dressing room. How would you feel if you were asked to change somewhere else because of the way your body looked? We, as a dance family, should get used to the idea that people have different equipment. We claim to be a body positive movement, and we should act like it. People have different bodies. There is nothing wrong with that.
There are a few things that can be done to make queer and trans people more comfortable in class. First of all, use the name they give you, even if it’s different than the one on their credit card or ID. Dancers have no problem referring to each other by stage names, so it really shouldn’t be a stretch to refer to someone by the name they give you, even if it is not their birth name. Don’t give out their birth name (or their sex assigned at birth!) if you know it. That is horribly invasive and rude.
Generally speaking, it is best to refer to them by the pronouns that match their gender presentation. However, with some queer people it may be difficult to determine just by anatomy (and, to be honest, that’s a creepy way to determine someone’s gender anyway). Some trans people do not medically transition (take hormones or have surgery) and our dance wear usually leaves little to the imagination. If you are not sure if someone is a “he” or “she” (or a “they”), either politely give them your own pronouns and see if they are willing to give you theirs or discreetly ask. Most queer and trans people are okay with this, but there will be some people who will get offended that you have to ask. Be prepared and be polite.
Try to avoid “gendered language.” Instead of addressing a class as “Ladies!” try “Dancers!” instead. Not only is this more welcoming to our male students, but also to genderqueer and other gender non-conforming dancers who may feel left out or offended at being called a lady.
Also avoid saying things like “Women’s bodies are built this way.” Actually, this is an untrue statement even completely ignoring the erasure of male and gender nonconforming dancers. Not all AFAB (assigned female at birth) women’s bodies are built the same. I have fallen afoul of this way of speaking myself, and it just isn’t true. So don’t erase your AMAB (assigned male at birth) female dancers by saying something like this.
These all seem like small changes, but you would be surprised at the push back I have seen for being more accommodating of queer and trans dancers. I have heard dancers flatly state that men do not belong in belly dance, and that trans women are men and don’t belong. This is horribly near-sighted and offensive. If we want belly dance to be the body positive community we claim it to be, then we really need to walk the walk. If we want belly dance to succeed as a dance form, to be accepted by the mainstream as an art form, we should be looking forward not clinging to “traditional” forms of thinking. These days, many young people are throwing off out-dated ideas of gender and are choosing not to identify as male or female. I have seen many belly dancers lament that no young people are coming to their classes, that belly dance is aging and dying out. If you want to attract young people, you are going to have to be willing to move with the times, and that means being accepting of queer and trans people.
If you have any thoughts or questions, or suggestions, please comment below. But know that I have a comment policy. If you disagree and want a discussion, that’s fine. But if you hurl obscenities and insults your comment will be deleted and not acknowledged.
Critique vs. Shaming
I think belly dance has a critique problem. I’m sure you are either rolling your eyes or screaming out agreement at the screen about now. So here’s what I mean.
First, there’s this video:
For those who don’t want to watch, it’s Beyonce and co. revealing their rear ends and dancing very provocatively to Enta Omri. Yeah, I find it pretty offensive too, but not for the reasons apparently a lot of other belly dancers do. I think it was culturally insensitive (and offensive) of her to use this song in this way. I also have issue with the track record of popular artists who steal music for their own use and manage to get away with it, so I am skeptical that she got the permission to use this piece (admittedly, I have no proof of this, and is pure conjecture…).
However, this video was posted into a group where the comments turned pretty quickly to body and slut shaming. Find any post of burlesque fused with belly dance, and you get the same thing. “Gross,” “disgusting,” and “shameful” are the adjectives used the most.
Guys, this is not okay.
I find it shameful that a group of people who claim to be body positive, who dance and shake their rear ends around in body revealing costumes go around and shame others for being body positive, who show a lot of skin while shaking their rear ends dancing. Come on. We should know better than this by now. While YOU may not want to dance like Beyonce, lots of other people do, and that’s okay. Her dancing isn’t any less valid than yours.
The root of the problem (other than internalized misogyny) is that belly dancers, in general, do not know how to give or receive critical feedback.
One of the causes of this problem is that many belly dancers do not start out as artists who choose dance. They do not go to college or to art schools to learn. They do not come up in dance schools where critique is part of the curriculum (although there are many dancers that do).
I think it is one of the best things about belly dance that we are so supportive of others, but it is also one of the worst. Why? Because we don’t want to give each other critical feedback. We just tell them “Nice job!” or “Beautiful costume!” and never give them anything else. That kind of feedback is USELESS to a serious artist. While it makes us feel good (especially when given by someone we admire or respect), it does not help us grow as artists or dancers.
Because we are not trained to give useful feedback, we tend to attack what we ARE trained to critique: the bodies, personalities, and choices of other women. So when we watch something we do not like, instead of telling the dancer what they need to work on, we attack (behind their back) their costume choice, their body shape, how they did their makeup, how offended we were at their music choice (how DARE they do fusion), or how much skin they were revealing with the costume. This is USELESS to an artist as well, and harmful.
Yes, dancers make bad choices in music, costuming, and makeup. But that doesn’t mean we have to make fun of them or shame them for it. We certainly should not be shaming them for what their bodies or faces look like. We should not be shaming them for revealing too much skin. Saying things like, “Her dad must be so proud of her” is slut shaming, and is not constructive.
As artists, we need to find a balance between giving feedback that is helpful, and being shaming to our fellow dancers.
The other side of the coin is, of course, being willing to receive feedback. We need to learn how to take the critiques of others (as long as they are given as helpful critique and not harmful shaming) and not get offended. If someone tells me I need to work on my arms, and hey, they really like this DVD on arms, I will thank them and check it out.
I’m not saying we have to like everything our fellow dancers do, nor am I saying that we should give feedback to every dancer that walks past us. Unsolicited feedback is especially unwelcome to any dancer, seasoned or new.
So the next time you see a performance – belly dance or hip hop or anything else – please remember that a human is on the other end and to be kind to them. Slut and body shaming is what is more shameful than a tasteless performance.
Note: I also really like this blog piece, and almost posted it instead of writing this blog. But I think my thoughts on how to give critique to other dancers is useful, so I decided to go ahead and post this.
A Personal Note
I have debated myself long and hard whether to post anything about this. But I have made my decision, for good or ill.
Some of you may know that today is National Coming Out Day. I have made no secret that I am part of the LGBTQ+ community, but I have been quieter about what, exactly, that means. Due to the nature of belly dance, I have worried about my standing in the community, my reputation as a dancer, and my business. I realize that by doing this, I will alienate a large section of people. There will be some who believe I have no place in belly dance and there will be those who will not want to work with me any more.
But that’s okay, because I don’t need those sorts of people in my life. They do me no good, nor do they do anyone else any good, either. Bigotry has run unchecked for too long.
I am genderqueer. I am a trans person. Specifically, I am transmasculine*.
Many of you have big question marks over your heads, and I totally understand. It took me a LONG TIME to figure this out for myself. It means that I do not view myself as a woman. However, I do not view myself as a man. I am not a trans man. But I do feel that I am masculine. For about six months now, I have been taking testosterone treatments. They have changed my life. I am happier, calmer, and feel more like myself than I have since high school, when I dressed and acted more masculine than I do now.
What does this mean for belly dance? Hopefully, not a whole lot. I will still continue to teach and perform as Kamrah. That will not change. At the moment, I still present as female and will for a while. However, I do have future plans for surgery and that will affect my appearance. When that happens, I will definitely have a shift in how I present myself on stage. I will likely appear much more masculine on stage when that happens, and I will likely be introduced using masculine pronouns. I ask that people respect that decision. However, in day to day life, I prefer gender neutral pronouns, such as “they” and “them.” I realize some people will have apoplexy due to grammar rules, but hey, if it’s good for Shakespeare, it’s good for you. As Kamrah, for now, however, female pronouns are appropriate and fine with me.
This does not change me as a performer or a person. I am still the same person I have always been, except that now you know more about how I feel inside. I have always felt this way, but have had difficulty expressing it. If you want to know more about my journey, I have started a different blog, called Divergent Lifestyles, that talks a little bit about it.
I am willing to answer RESPECTFUL questions. If you need to know what that means, please check here before asking deeply personal questions. Due to the sensitivity of this, I am closing comments. If you want to say something to me, you can do it on Facebook or Twitter where I can see who you are (and report you if necessary…but let’s not get to that, okay?)
Thank you to all who have supported me. Some of you have known about this, and I appreciate your willingness to be there for me.
*Transmasculine: I do not mean the toxic definition of masculine that many people are familiar with. I mean that I feel my body should have more masculine features instead of the feminine features I was born with.
My Thoughts on Tribal Fest®
This has been a very emotional couple of days for me. We all know of the current problem that has come up around Tribal Fest®. If you need to catch up, you can read the official statement from the teachers and vendors who have decided to withdraw, and Tribal Fest’s® (Kajira’s) official response as well as Chuck’s apology.
While I was not specifically targeted (as far as I know all the dancers who were have been contacted; I have not been) this entire situation impacts me pretty personally, as well as professionally.
I have been a Tribal Fest® instructor as well as staff, performer, and attendee. I have encouraged my students, colleagues, and friends to go. While I had only been twice, I felt supported and welcomed by the amazing community there. I’ve made friends there, got to reunite with friends there, and got to take workshops with the biggest names in belly dance there. I have many fond memories there, as I felt welcomed and part of a family.
And so this situation has me horrified, disappointed, shocked, and sad. And now angry. My heart goes out to Kajira, who must now pick up the pieces after a horrible betrayal by someone who is supposed to be a woman’s biggest supporter: her spouse.
After the release of the initial statement from the teachers, I gathered some information that led me to decide to no longer support Tribal Fest®. This came about after many agonizing hours. To be clear: the names on this list are some of the biggest names in belly dance. They did not come to this decision lightly. This has been going on for some time, not just the three days that it has been public. You can be certain that lawyers were called and that much deliberation went into this decision. For many of the instructors and vendors, Tribal Fest® was their biggest week. They would not lightly put their entire livelihood and reputation at risk for rumors, for something that wasn’t as serious as this has turned out to be. I have not seen actual screenshots but I have read descriptions of the posts and they are about as disgusting as you can imagine.
This was a betrayal, pure and simple. A person in power used that power to demean, degrade, and dehumanize both men and women in the community. While I have not seen the actual postings, there are claims of not only misogyny, but also homophobia and transphobia.
I am part of the LGBTQ+ community and I cannot stand for that.
I have to say that I am disappointed in the official response to this situation. There are many questions left and, now coming to light, “inaccuracies.” Chuck’s apology leaves much to be desired. In addition, his response to comments on his post has shown that he is not yet ready for forgiveness or amends, however sincere his apology may seem. Right now, he is angry and sorry he got caught. I hope, for his sake and for the community’s sake, that he grows and truly becomes sorry for what he did. We must remember that we cannot force people to change. People must be willing to change for it to happen.
It is unfair that Kajira must now suffer for the actions of her husband. This is a tough lesson. We are all connected, and everything we say and do affects those around us, whether we are aware of it or not. Chuck and Kajira are learning this the hard way, and I do feel sorry for them both.
Yet I have decided that I still cannot support Tribal Fest®. I will not be at TF16. It is too soon. I have not been asked to teach this year (though I had applied), and I do not know what the future holds since so many other teachers have pulled out. But if I am approached to teach, I will have to decline.
We must keep one thing in mind over the next few days and weeks: a thing is not a person. A thing cannot be a victim. An event cannot be a victim. There are real victims, victims of a form of violence, that are suffering right now. The (possible) closure of an event, no matter how beloved, pales in comparison to what the victims are going through. I support the victims of this terrible situation and stand by them.
I have the utmost respect for Kajira and the enormous amount of work she has put into the festival, as well as all the teachers, vendors, and students who have chosen to continue to support her and Tribal Fest®. This should not be an “us vs. them” situation. People make business and conscience decisions every day, and we must respect each person’s decision, even if we disagree with them.
It is my sincere and fervent hope that Tribal Fest® will someday return to its glory days. But that will not – and should not – happen while Chuck is still involved in any way, directly or indirectly. We must take a stand against violent, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic speech. We must send a clear message that this is Not Okay in our community and will not be tolerated at all, even if tears down the party and ruins everyone’s fun. It is a hard lesson to learn, but one that is necessary.
Will I ever return to Tribal Fest®? I hope so. But not until much healing and many amends have been made. Will Tribal Fest® survive? I hope so, though it will never be the same. That might be for the best.
Love to all who have been hurt by this, and I hope that healing begins soon for everyone. I wish Kajira the best.
Edit: Abusive comments will be deleted.