Dance or Dunce Judges Part II - The Bi Guan Journals Continues
Watching the So You Think You Can Dance show produced a phenomenon known among my friends as “The Stephanie”. Every time I see a fantastic performance, I spend a sleepless night practising and dancing to improve myself in dread that I will never measure up. Every time I see a very bad performance, I spend a sleepless night practising and dancing for fear I will become as crap as those dancers if I do not work at it. Yes, I am that neurotic.
I spent the first part of my bi guan in a panic that my dance knowledge was as scant and narrow as the show’s judges and producers. Sleeplessly, feverishly, I studied all my videos and tried to practice almost every dance form I have ever learnt. By morning, I was a trembling, exhausted and totally spaced out cadet.
But the OCD-ly furor did me good. By my performance on Tuesday night, I was loose, fairly relaxed and more open to challenges. Realising I was performing on the Iranian New Year (Happy belated New Year to all Iranians) made my choice of music and dance style much easier. I chose a saidi cane dance and really dressed down with just a simple robe and belt and a fully-covered costume, relying on dance skill over flashy costumes or music. It was a lucky choice as it turned out the Egyptian ambassador was there too and this is his favourite dance.
My Stephanie moment was propitious as the performance threw up many surprises including two encore requests and also a couple of conversations with a film producer and a concert planner. From experience, I never take much stock in such “conversations”. The impulsive proposals would normally have stuck me as extremely left-field to be dismissed immediately without a second thought.
But because I had watched So You Think You Can Dance and spent time bi guaning, I had reached a transient level of expansiveness. Spurred by the narrow-minded and insular ignorance of the judges and producers I forced my mind to open up to more dance experiences, thoughts, philosophy and styles in the last two days to prove that I am not as mired in mediocrity and bias. So I gave some thought to the possibilities presented.
I ultimately dismissed them though. I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I will never accept any business proposals if there is even a niggling doubt of their sincerity. No and a hundred times no to poorly-disguised bids to get into my robes or to market me as some strange and bizarre sex symbol for the half-blind and tasteless. I’d rather bi guan, thank you very much.
The other benefit of the recent bi guan is the time spent to ponder the industry. Just 30 minutes before my performance, I was warned about two superbly demanding Iranians in the audience. A third party gossiped that they absolutely hated a recent performance by a dancer I know fairly well. And apparently, they made this known to their inner-circle.
I think this was unfortunate. Firstly, I like the dancer, C, as a person. Secondly, it is a case of buyer beware. In our dance circle, it is well known that she is not a classical dancer, being more a MTV-type dancer. Yet, the people who hire her put her out there in front of discerning audiences who expect a high standard of traditional and classical dance training. Furthermore, she is not aware of cultural sensitivities or preferences and, occasionally, her choice of music or dance style may be inappropriate. To condemn and blacklist her is unfair especially as she is a rather good dancer. Essentially, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Not that she is a monkey by any means but you know what I mean.
I hate hearing people lambast other dancers spuriously. Especially people who are not dance-trained. I am no angel and of course, like my other brethrens, have indulged in some giggles and sniggers when it came to dancers I think are pretentious or delusional. However, it is like family. While you can criticise and make fun of your own family members, no one else has that right.
I did not appreciate hearing about this dancer’s “blacklisting” as this comes in the wake of comments about another group of dancers recently. An event organiser complained incessantly about two dancers he kept proclaiming were “horrible”. After much probing, he revealed that he thought they were fat and ugly and the dancing was bad. How bad and in what way he could not elaborate. I had the sense he did not see beyond the physical appearance of the dancers. Which really, really pissed me off.
I suspect I know who these two dancers were from his description. If my guess is right, one of them is a very poor dancer but then again, she only had fleeting classical dance lessons. The other dancer is also not classically trained but together, they are entertaining and although one is no raving beauty by any means, it is unkind to label them as fat and ugly. And who is this man to make such a judgement? Do you want dancers or super models?
During my bi guan moments, I pondered this. Having been sneered at by some for being invited to perform only because of my looks, such as they are, I admit I still carry a chip on my shoulder. When I first performed here, many in the dance circle gave me a hard time and used that ugly stick to beat me down. Since then, through years of silent indignation, I think I have managed to gain some reluctant respect but it has made me extremely careful about where and for whom I perform for. It has also limited my choices and garnered me a reputation for being both difficult and expensive. So it is ironic when I hear of people asking for someone younger but able to dance like me – which according to some dancer friends, have created a tiny coterie of misguided Mini Mes. I am not sure whether to be flattered, insulted or just amused.
Thus, I have a real abhorrence of being regarded as a "sexy" dancer. When I heard that the Iranian diplomats had expressed a concern that I would be a C-like dancer, my usual paranoia and self-doubt kicked in with a vengeance. I was relieved I had chosen a saidi cane dance and my costume.
Dancing under the yoke of such potential censure left me feeling disadvantaged. But because I had bi-guaned, I was relatively centred and chilled. It also helped that I spotted a very old and good friend in the audience as well as the sweetly kind Egyptian ambassador before I went on stage. Their supportive, encouraging smiles were soothing balms of acknowledgement and faith.
I've been asked if I get nervous before performances even after these decades. Yes I do. Being terribly neurotic, I always have nervous attacks days and even weeks before a performance, leading to The Stephanies. But seldom just before a performance. I like my dressing room time - if I get my own dressing room, that is. I typically avoid speaking with or interacting with anyone just before I go on. Unfortunately, this quirk has caused some to think I am incredibly stuck-up when all I want is the solitude to centre myself.
I like the quiet time alone as I finish my makeup and don my costume. A calm descends on me and I go into a zone. Everything goes on super sensory alert. My hearing is sharper. I start to feel a vibration through the ground. Sliding up my limbs. Into my belly. Echoing my heartbeat. Rushing into my ears. My limbs seem to stretch longer and my centre actually rises a little higher in my unwinding body. My skin prickles and even the softest breeze on it is intensified.
With each slick of makeup on my face, I assume a different identity. I am the happy, go-lucky, cheeky lass. The woman scorned. The mourning lover awaiting her beloved's return. It’s hard to define but until I dance a story, I do not really dance. Even the simplest and shortest dance must tell a story for me or you can sense my disconnect.
Does this ability to assume an identity make me a better dancer? I do not know. I only know that is the only way I block off the audience and lose myself in the music ... in the dance. Blocking off potentially negative vibes, thoughts or criticism emanating from the dark mass of faces. People have noted that I am a very expressive dancer and they really connect with me when I dance. I am loathed to tell them I actually do not see them. Even if I make eye contact, smile or raise an imploring glance towards them, I do not see them. They are part of my performance. The evil mother-in-law. The lecherous king. The uncaring lover. The lost child.
I am not real to many of my audience. But then, they are not real to me too. At least not when I am on stage. To them, I am a dancing marionette, a graceful gazelle(their words, not mine) or an exotic oddity. To me, they are characters in my little dance world. Is it little wonder that the relationships between dancers and their audience is so dysfunctional then? Because we are not real to each other?
As I continue with my bi guan, I realised that I cut myself off from my audience, and even other dancers sometimes. I am guilty of distancing myself to protect myself from unwanted attention, malicious criticism and anything that may disturb my centre. I think I am actually embarrassed to hear compliments after my performances. Being so neurotic, I always wonder if they are sincere or mere words of politeness. I try to be more open and receptive but my natural reticence frays at the edges of my seeming bonhomie, making me seek my dressing area or the kitchen, if there is one.
Yes, I ran off to the kitchen after my performance, made friends with the caterers and ate there while I chatted about recipes with the cook. (The Iranian chicken and a vegetable puree were to die for!) Isn’t that hilarious? People pay to watch me dance and try to capture my attention after every performance. Instead, I bugger off to dance a little jig with the cheerful Indian cook and her waiters while they fed me satays, chicken, rice and wine. I had a ball.
By the time I re-emerged, only a few stragglers remained, including the Iranians and the Egyptian ambassador. I was immensely flattered when the fastidious Iranians thanked, complimented and invited me to perform for them. This was extremely gratifying considering how they cut C. Even more flattering was how the kindly, old ambassador was proudly regaling another guest about my credentials and heritage. It was adorable how he even remembered all my personal details and was behaving like a proud uncle. No wonder he is my favourite ambassador and client in Singapore. Perhaps I should not be so shy and spend more time with my audience after all! I have enough vanity to enjoy all that gushing.
Sometimes feedback is good. Often times I take the criticism of others too much to heart and The Stephanies begin to take over my life as I strive to battle my biggest critic - myself. Avoiding the audience shuts out possible confirmation of my greatest fears but it also silences any positive affirmation.
I’d try to make more contact with the audience next time. As long as there’s no kitchen to distract me. I need to bi guan now. I am petrified I will disappoint the Iranians and myself. And the neurosis continues ...