Sunday, June 11, 2006

Dancerpades Part II - Traditional Soloists

Yes, yes, I am late but there were mitigating circumstances and just be glad I am filing this story at all. To those who plaintively bemoaned, "Where's Part II?", here it is. Apologies for the very bad photos but I was quaking so much from fear I could not take proper shots ... oh my nerves are just all shot!

Part II of Dancerpades looks into the competition for the top local soloist held on 3 June 2006 and gives a breakdown and analysis of each performer and the event.

Evo or Eva
Obviously, the MC has speech impediments. Which would be cause for commiseration if he did not labour under the false misconception that he was incredibly entertaining or relish in his mutilation of not only the English but Arabic language.

Whoever hired him should have spent some time coaching him so he did not massacre the two languages or insult almost every dancer present.

The event is called Urban Evolution but our emo-but-actually-sumo-wannabe host persisted in calling it an Urban Evaluation event. Did he know something the rest of us didn’t?

Perhaps it is unkind of me, but I truly wondered if there was a plot afoot when he continuously butchered Alhambra’s name every … single … time he announced them. Al Umbrella. Al Ghabra. Al Hamburger. Since he is Malay and this is hardly an unusual name, I could only assume that he was either trying to be funny or had a mental block when it came to one of the oldest middle eastern dance schools in Singapore.

His jokes were beyond lame and wandered into a realm so painful that even little children groaned at his puns. The fact that he made fun of our dance form did not endear him to me and made me seriously question the wisdom of appointing him the MC for our inaugural international competition.

How Traditional Is Traditional?
I bring this up prematurely as it has been a topic of some contention prior to this contest. When we saw the segregation of categories, many probed the definition of traditional.
According to the organisers, Traditional is termed as “Forms of classical, traditional, or simple Middle Eastern music to dance, [of which] there are several styles; classical, drum solo, cane, any folkloric or traditional style.”

While this may not be as much of an issue in Singapore where most of us tend to follow the Egyptian style, it may cause some problems in other countries where the American Tribal Bellydance style is quite popular. By the fact that they call it Tribal, which is considered as traditional, some may consider the American Tribal Bellydance style acceptable in the traditional category. However, in most parts of the world, excluding America, American Tribal Bellydance is generally considered as fusion since it is a style evolved from the enterprising Americans’ imagination, cultural preferences and desire for a flashier dance form.

Obviously this ambiguity never occurred to the organisers. However, when this point was raised by Nur Shiblie of Alhambra and supported by 3A Gurl and I, it was duly noted but apparently discarded as a valid concern.

The reason why I mention this now will become clearer when I post about the international leg of this competition – but remember that we brought this up in early May.

Battle of the Schools
I find it amazing that it can be called a national competition, to discover the best dancer in Singapore, when only two schools are competing. There were 14 contestants and all, sans 3, were from the organiser’s school. The other 3 were from Alhambra. When this question was asked, the response was markedly split. The organisers claimed that the community just did not send in the contestants because they were all busy or did not have the right candidates.

Almost every school or teacher I spoke to claimed either one or more of the following:

We did not have enough time to prepare as it was such short notice

We do not have the prerequisite 3 troupes minimum entry for a school to participate in the entire contest (please note that this was stated in the earlier applications requirements but appears to have been changed at the last minute as we noted that some of the participating schools, i.e. two schools other than the organiser’s, did not submit 3 troupes)

We are not supporting this event

We are professional dancers and believe we should not be participating in order to ensure a level playing field

We think the competition may not be a fair contest

As such, for the solo local competition, it transpired that only 2 out of God-knows-how-many-but-it-must-be-at-least-10 schools are involved. I am humming the song Question as I wonder at the validity of this competition in light of this. When I find my trusty (& dusty) calculator, I will attempt to do some new maths for you … no promises …

Casting the Stones
All contestants were judged on 5 categories of

Presentation and framing
Fluidity of technique
Originality & creativity (I have a gripe with this category but more on that later)
Rhythm & musicality

PowerPuff Girl
This is what happens when some young thing gets a taste of what she thinks is power and lets it get to her airhead. Prior to the entire show, the MC announced that no photos or videos were allowed except for the official camera people and the media. Since I was there as a member of the press, I was happily entrenched in my little corner a few seats up, knowing from experience that a little distance is required to capture the movements of the dancers as they travelled the stage.

A young Chinese girl approached me in the midst of the performances and with a very militant, rude and self-important tone, proceeded to threaten me. I don't know about you but I come from a lineage of warriors who were fairly well known for chopping off people's heads with a sword in a fit of temper. Luckily for her, the only weapons I had were my cameras.

Standing over me as I cast a gimlet eye over her and the line with which to strangle herself, Little Miss Self-Important blurted in one breath.

Excuse me, but no cameras or videos are allowed in here so you cannot take any pictures and if you persist in taking pictures, I will have take your camera away from you!

A victorious look contorted her pale face and I was not sure if that was due to her satisfaction in managing to say all that without taking a breath or in how she must have cowed me terribly. Slouching in my seat, I looked up at her lazily, unfurled my long legs that were lengthier than her entire body and said,

Will you now? Well, thank you so much for offering to take my camera. That is so polite of you ... and I would really like to see you try. (Strange how I develop a slightly southern drawl when I get pissed)

At this point, 3A next to me is trying humanely to save the girl's hide and drags the media pass pinned to my top to Little Miss Self-Important's narrow-slit eyes. Her supercilious behaviour even attracted the attention of the blonde gentleman across the aisle from me. He gave me commiserating looks, shook his head at the little damsel's lack of survival instincts and later remarked on their delusions of grandeur and their abominable rudeness. I credit superior manners and self-control to not relenting to genetically-inborn sword-jerk reaction.

Well missy, I happen to be a press member so I have permission to take photographs but thank you for threatening me. And in that tone. Before you even found out what the situation was. I will be sure to take great note of this.

The little idiot had the audacity to smile sheepishly and mutter a faint apology before scuttling off hurriedly.

What was even more amusing was that in the second half, I took my hair out of its usual chignon and apparently I looked sufficiently different enough to attract Little Miss Self-Important's attention again. She was almost a foot away before she realised with horror that it was me again. Paling even more than her normal pasty complexion, she did an about-turn but not before uttering, "Oh, you again!"


The next day when I had one of my few chances to speak with the organisers, I mentioned her incredible rudeness and poor treatment of the press, only to receive a pithy response from them that she was required to do so. When I asked if threats and rudeness before verification were standing instructions or was I just special, they hemmed and hawed and I never received a single apology.


Traditional Segment Contestants
First up was Shireen who hails from Egypt – the only true middle easterner in the group. It was obvious and totally understandable that it was a matter of personal and national pride for her to represent her culture. Having met her briefly before, I somehow harboured the impression that she had been privy to more intensive and extensive training. Thus, it was to some surprise that I realised that she is quite a rank beginner with just a year’s tutelage.

I was curious as to what Nur Shiblie would make of Shireen since she is an avid proponent of true representation of her culture. Shiblie revealed that she was surprised that a native-born Egyptian would take lessons from someone outside of her culture.

For your information, Shireen is a student of the organiser, who is a Singaporean-born Chinese. The organiser, in turn, was primarily taught and trained in Singapore by some of the most respected local teachers whom I know would prefer that I do not name them as they are too embarrassed to claim this extraordinary credit, since she has not credited them herself.

Clad in a dark brown and gold bedlah aka two-piece, bejeweled costume, Shireen attempted a fairly ambitious number involving a golden-hued, split veil. Ambitious because when you are a beginner, dancing with props can be dangerous. I like to tell my students that if you are unsure of a prop, do not use it. In case it comes back and bites you. Trust me, when performing with snakes, this might be a possibility! Unfortunately, it appears that no one told Shireen that.

Although she displayed some flowing movements, they were a little weak and revealed an uncertainty and lack of feel for the music. I attributed this to a mixture of nerves, lack of familiarity with her music and inexperience as I refuse to believe that someone of her background can possess less than stellar rhythm. But then again, I did once meet an African American who could not rap, play basketball or sing! Good heavens … say it is not so!

She danced to a Warda song. Dancing with a split veil throughout a Warda song is a waste of this wonderful singer’s vocals. Her songs are evocative, eloquent, wonderfully meaningful and usually hold such cultural (and sometimes political) significance that not to dance to each poetically-worded, impassioned stanza is a shame. To waft and weave uncertainly with half-hearted flicks of the veil diminishes not only the song but Shireen’s own ability.

As an Egyptian with a true understanding of the language, Shireen has a greater advantage over her competition. She could interpret the song to its fullest capacity through her dance. Instead, I was disappointed by her fairly weak 8s and undulations, poor veilwork, untimely snake arms and clumsy exit. Shireen appeared uncomfortable with the choreography and just did not connect with it at all, resulting in a wobbly (technical eh?) performance.

I truly feel that Shireen should and could have been guided better so that all her cultural advantages were optimised and her talent unleashed. I felt extremely bad for her as she has so much more riding on this. But I commend her on trying and would like to see her develop from here on.

I gave Shireen a 6/10 for presentation & framing; a 4/10 for fluidity of technique; a 5/10 for expression; 3/10 for originality & creativity; and 4/10 for rhythm & musicality. Overall, she scored a 4.4/10 – a score I can honestly say I felt bad giving to her.

Second up was Shayna, whom I had seen dance once at a local hotel lounge. I vaguely remembered that she has sounder technique than some of her classmates (yes, she is one of the organiser’s students too … look, from here on, it is safe to conclude they are all the organiser’s students unless otherwise stated).

This time she wore a much more flattering costume that complimented her fair skin. Her cobalt blue and gold bedlah was visually striking and suited her petite albeit slightly heavy build.

Shayna performed a drum solo to Drums on the Beach – a piece of music Keti Sharif commissioned Elias of Australia to compose for her. I am quite familiar with this piece of music, having taken a choreography workshop for this song with Keti Sharif in Singapore about 3 years ago. However, for fear of looking like an absolute arse trying to replicate a fantastic dancer who could not have a more different body type and style than me; out of respect to her; and to avoid accusations of ripping her off, I have always performed this to my own choreography.

What got me was that there was no announcement or attribution of the music or choreography to Keti. A major faux pas. In our world … and this is an opinion voiced by the master teachers too … it is only right that a dancer attribute the choreography to the rightful dancer/teacher if 30% or more of it is derived from them. Even I, when I perform Enta Omri, will tell people that the original choreography was taught to me by Eva Cass. Although I have adapted this greatly, I still give Eva her much-deserved and due respect, even after she has given me permission to use her choreography. That’s the other thing … never perform a choreographed dance of another dancer/teacher without their permission. Worse if it is for a competition. And way, way worse if the dancer/teacher just happens to be there. Why this is significant will become clearer soon.

Anyway, Shayna displayed relatively well defined hip accents and shimmies. However, the interpretation of the song was inordinately reliant on shimmies and I reckon that was a result of the choreographer forgetting most or all of Keti’s choreography and inability to create anything else. Knowing the organiser’s style, it is unlikely that they would rely on improvisation for a performance so it was a safe bet that every excessive shimmy was choreographed and rehearsed to the nth degree.

I was not entirely fond of the excessive chest accents which were typically performed with greater gusto than grace but fortunately, Shayna had a rather pleasant stage presence which stopped it just from looking unsavoury. I felt for her when the CD skipped – this was a hint of what was to come. The sound man at the National Museum should be clobbered with saidi canes, burnt with the shamadans and beheaded with our swords!

For such an experienced dancer (sic - she claims she started dancing at 22 as if it was a very long time ago when she looks all of 25), I was surprised at her “floppy” arms, poor hip drops timing but not at all surprised at the extremely tacky finish, which appears to be a signature move now that I have seen her perform more than 3 times. I did not feel that the drum solo was traditional enough and was more modern cabaret style because of the interpretation and choice of movement combinations. A discussion with Shiblie later also revealed that she found the “traditional” aspect of the drum solos questionable.

I gave Shayna a 6.5/10 for presentation & framing; a 6/10 for fluidity of technique; a 6/10 for expression; 5/10 for originality & creativity; and 5/10 for rhythm & musicality. Overall, she scored a 5.7/10 – a fairly decent effort from one of the principal dancers from the organiser’s school.

The third dancer was Maia. OK, I have to admit right up front that she is my 2nd favourite dancer at this competition. Perhaps I am prejudiced since I am such a fan of lyrical style that her dance style automatically appealed to me. Prior to the contest, she informed us that she had injured her knee and I felt terribly sorry for her but wondered at the wisdom of such heavy performing (she was also in the troupe competition), jeopardising her long term dance career. We’d all seen way too many dancers retire prematurely, never to be able to even dance for fun, because of such pig-headedness. Still, not my student or body …

But selfishly I was glad Maia persevered as she lent a much needed grace, class and charisma to the show. Her velvet green bedleh was not the most flattering. Although the colour was quite pleasing against her tanned complexion, the beaded loops running from nipple to side of breast was just plain tacky. I cannot tell you how I absolutely abhor such reminders of tasteless, black & white, vaudeville burlesque skits which ridicule and humiliate our community.

I recognised the choreography as a Yousry Sharif piece but again, there was no attribution to the great master. It makes giving scores for originality or creativity rather ludicrous. I reckoned Maia was not fully prepared as she exhibited an uneven control of her shimmies and hip twists but made up for these with lovely arm work and some nice Sohair hip accents. Her timing seemed a little off, impacting the rhythm and musicality scores as she occasionally shimmied at the wrong times, and displayed poor traveling hip circles to the music.

However, until my favourite dancer in this category and despite some of these shortcomings, Maia impressed me the most with a stage styling and star quality I had not seen in any of the other girls.

This lovely dancer received a 7/10 for presentation & framing; a 6.5/10 for fluidity of technique; a 7.75/10 for expression; 5/10 for originality & creativity; and 6/10 for rhythm & musicality. Overall, she scored a 6.45/10, perhaps a seemingly miserly score but I am basing it on an international contest standard and, I believe, therefore fair … and anyway it is my personal opinion which no one is mandated to agree with.

On such positive and fairly glowing review, I shall stop here while I give you a chance to read, scoff, agree, ridicule, curse, guffaw, ignore or worry over what I have opined so far. I will respond to comments shortly after I finish the review so please bear with me.


Blogger Aimee "Roo" said...

Wow! I love it!!

Do you bellydance too? I just started a bellydancers blog, I want it to be a group blog, so it would be lovely if you wanted to join!

11:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good comments on Maia. She was off the hitting the shimmies and beats because of a dislocated knee. She did put much effort and work into the choreography. I thought, despite being influenced from the masters, she certainly did inject her own personality into it.

4:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good comments on Maia. She was off hitting the shimmies and beats because of a dislocated knee. She did put much effort and work into the choreography. I thought, despite being influenced from the masters, she certainly did inject her own personality into it.

4:37 pm  
Blogger MM said...

Dear Anonymous, come on you can do better than that! At least have the moxie to write under your own name as well as steam! LOL.

OK, seriously ... Thanks but Maia deserves the comments as she proved herself a worthy contestant and dancer. However, in a competition, we cannot give points out of pity for injuries and that was the point I was trying to make. That she should not have competed if she was injured as so she can be in full form and not put herself in danger.

As to putting yourself into a choreo created by a master - the point is not investment of self but honesty.

By the fact that there is a judging criteria called originality & creativity, it entails not using a choreo which you or your choreographer have not created yourself. If she wanted to use Yousry's choreo, she should have made that clear to the judges who would have respected her more for that and scored her accordingly. The fact that some of them recognised the choreo and come to the conclusion that a contestant is trying to pull a fast one over by pretending that it is her own creation would cause a judge to deduct marks.

I am not saying that this was the case for Maia in case you too, like us, are wondering what happened with her scores. I am saying that this would be the case across the board.

Still, I did like Maia's performance and hope she has fully recovered from her injury and congratulate her on the Troupe win.

11:26 am  
Anonymous Paola said...

Dear MM -

Thank you for this blog, and for your humor and honesty. Having taught in KL for 3 and a half years, I must say I find some of the same problems endemic to the scene here. While I was in New York during this contest you write about, I was privy to many rumblings upon my return.

Kudos for bringing up the issue of artistic plagiarism; not enough is said on that. All teachers must expound on the ethics at the core of what we do. Otherwise what's the point of dance? It has the potential to be one of the most evolutionary things we do, a way of reaching out toward more refined selfhood. And yet it is constantly reduced to an ego-spat, confined to the lower rungs of human experience.

You deserve credit for speaking up clearly on the bias and unprofessionalism in the contest. When we speak up, we run the risk of making ourselves unpopular. But when we don't speak up, we empower the status quo to maintain its stranglehold on values and practice.

9:18 am  

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