Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On Mentoring

I performed in a pretty big show last weekend, involving some pretty reputable dancers (why they invited me, I have no idea!)... and one very respected local instructor asked me as I was about to leave the dressing room for a moment, "Do you have a cover-up? And do tribal dancers wear cover ups? I see a lot of tribal dancers just walking around in their costumes... and I wondered why."

Now, I admit to forgetting a "formal" cover-up on several occasions, but I at least have something to cover myself so that I'm not walking around in full costume.

And I replied to her, "Well, technically, yes, we do wear cover-ups... and I think the dancers you see without them haven't had anyone to tell them otherwise." You see, I think (and I worry) that there is a whole generation of tribal-oriented dancers out there whose primary instruction comes from instructional videos and YouTube... and I worry about these dancers. This is not to say that a dancer can't learn from these media, but it is a rare dancer who can do so. I can think of two.

One reason I worry for these dancers is that if they are learning primarily from videos, then they probably don't have a mentor or a primary instructor to guide them, not only physically to ensure proper technique and body awareness, but also professionally.

I was lucky enough to have a very respected instructor as my professional mentor: Artemis Mourat, from Washington, DC. She took me in after I moved to this area after graduating from college, and taught me nearly everything I needed to know about being not only a dancer, but a professional entertainer. If I had learned only from videos, I probably wouldn't have any idea about asking for a fare wage, always wearing a cover-up, how to conduct oneself when confronted with threatening restaurant owners, and how to dance with a live band. If I had to sum it up, she taught me professional ethics. And I continue to seek her guidance in professional matters to this day. She is a mentor in the true sense of the word. I am grateful that I have such an amazing woman as a resource in my life.

I understand that not all aspiring dancers have such instructors in their areas... and I wonder if it might be worth setting up some sort of mentoring program for dancers... if we could pair up new dancers with experienced ones, and have them establish a relationship either online or over the phone or both. My day job has a program like this, and every new employee is assigned a mentor to help them learn the ropes of the profession. Why don't we have something like this in belly dance?

As we who have been in the dance for a while complain about undercutters who don't know better than to dance for free (*cringe*) or that they should wear a cover-up unless performing, we do very little to combat it. We've been relatively passive, offering guidance to those who seek it, but only after they've sought it, unless those seeking the guidance are our own students. What if we actively sought out "mentees" to coach? Of course, there will always be those dancers who disregard the community at large and will perform and teach before they're ready, but I think we can do more to combat this, particularly as more dancers don't have primary instructors and look to videos for their dance training.

I think I'm going to post about this on the Biz of Belly Dance tribe and see what people say. I'm not sure anyone has thought of this before...


Lisa said...

I 100% agree with you. I was lucky enough to have a dance-path that included this kind of mentoring. Everyone should have a bellydance big sister!

I think the organized mentoring idea would be great, but I don't think that it helps the *real* problem people: Those who don't know that they don't know, and who adamantly believe that they *do* know. For example, those drop-in "bellydancers" who will take only a handful of classes and think that they're ready to teach their own classes. How can you educate them when you only really have a couple hours of airtime with them?

I've offered/inserted myself as a bellydance big sister to several early dancers. Sometimes, it worked; other times, it didn't. I think those latter instances were because I was trying to educate people who thought they knew better and unfortunately had to learn on their own (or never learn).

That being said, are we trying to help the eager innocents, or the arrogant naive ones? Would the eager innocents eventually seek out mentorship on their own? Maybe I'm looking at it in the wrong way, and it's really just about supporting those who are eager and innocent, instead of trying to defend the community from the arrogant yet naive dancers...

As a side note, it's really weird to me that tribal fusion dancers are held to different standards. Coming from the beads-n-sequins world, I was stunned to see how casually tribal fusion dancers would drink and smoke in public while at gigs...!


Anonymous said...

Awesome idea. As for me, I feel really lucky that I'm close enough with some of the Kallisti girls to be able to call/email/hang out and pick their brains... it's not a formal mentorship, but it's close enough, and I realize that I'm pretty lucky to have that. Something more formal could also be really cool, in helping my generation of student dancers who are working on one day going pro.


the ineffable b said...

I have also noticed the lack-of-cover-up issue with some tribal dancers and I think I also chalked it up to people being uninformed as to what is good ethical practice. I never stopped to think about the YouTube/DVD generation of dancers, without having real life mentors, as just not knowing many of the little things that make for a good performance career.

We had a good mentor in Lisa, who was wonderful about teaching us the correct way to act at shows (always wear a cover-up, don't talk crap about anyone at the gig, be respectful and pay attention to everyone, even if it's not your style of dancing). I definitely think there are times where I've been judgmental of undercutters/those whom I've felt don't exhibit good ethical behavior and maybe a little compassion could do me good.

I think it's a good idea to post this on prodancers, as it would hopefully get some people thinking about how they could effect positive change versus just complaining about negative behavior. Definitely got me thinking.

I'd gladly be a mentor! I've done it for young actors and for community benefit programs in the past and found it very fulfilling.

Amber said...

There are always going to be people who don't want help or mentoring. I'm lucky enough to have, in a short time established mentors/resources in several styles of dance I am interested in. These women are supportive, encouraging, and informative. I also took the time to read, a lot, about the history of different styles. It's odd where you get information. I learned from the book "Snake Hips" that you wear a cover up at a Hafla unless you are performing. I learned from my own theater and previous dance performances that you don't (at least where the audience can see you) smoke before or after a performance, and you sure as hell don't drink. It's a desire for professionalism, which means, there has to be a desire for it. If it's just what you do for fun on weekends, or to get your kicks from people watching you dance for free, you aren't going to change. But for those who are serious, and truly want a mentor, I think this is a fantastic idea.

Anonymous said...

I think a mentor program is a fantastic idea.

I'm a newbie bellydancer- just started taking tribal fusion classes in February.
And there was a lot of confusion in the beginning. Despite hours on Youtube and Tribe, I still wasn't clear on WHY things were done, just that I saw a lot of other dancers doing them. Or what was important. What defined real fusion, and set it apart from the dancers who basically do whatever they want, throw in a shimmy and a undulation, and call it fusion.
(Loved your blog on that subject, by the way.)

For example, I'm now looking into taking ATS and cabaret classes, so that I can understand the basics that fusion grew out of. Didn't get why that was important at first. And I know a lot of dancers who still don't get it, sadly.

And my teacher is an awesome tribal fusion dancer, but she learned a lot from videos herself and often does things that I've since learned are actually kind of taboo.

Fortunately, a friend put me in touch with her own mentor, who was able to clear up a lot of confusion. Now I feel more confident that I actually understand what I'm doing and why, instead of just following the herd.

Unfortunately, I do see alot of my newbie peers doing (and wearing) things simply because they saw someone on Youtube do it.

For example, cowrie shell hair falls as far as the eye can see, but I bet less than a third of those wearing them can actually tell you what the cowries represent, just that Mardi made one and Rachel wore it and it looks cool, so now everyone has to have them.

It seems like there's going to be confusion and faux pas and tension for a while as tribal fusion continues to evolve and more and more people get exposed to it by the internet, without any additional resources.
A mentoring program, even just by e-mail, would be great for educating new dancers and ensuring that they treat the art form with dignity and respect.

By the way, I was at the "pretty big show" last weekend. You were amazing! And I was supposed to take your workshop, but then everything got rescheduled and I wasn't able to. Next time!
In the meantime, your dvd is kicking my ass... in a good way. :)

Amy said...

I think that it would be a program for people who feel the need for a mentor. There are times I've felt that need! When my first teacher moved away and I was searching around for a new one it would have been nice to have a mentor in any style to help me along. Lisa was a great teacher and mentor, but when she moved away it was harder to go to her for help, though I always know she's there if I have a question. Having a local mentor who knows the scene would have been nice when we had to strike out on our own as a student troupe with no teacher.

I think this is especially hard for tribal dancers. I know, after 4 years, that in Baltimore the scene is still small. People come to us for info or advice, but sometimes it would be nice to have someone to go to with our questions (especially for tribal). Luckily the B-more/DC dance scene is a good community, so we know people we can go to with our questions. I still want my Fairy Dance Godmother, though!

Bran said...

I think creating some sort of formal mentoring program would be a terrific idea. Those of us who, er, know enough to know what we don't know could certainly use a helping hand. Especially those of us who live in the middle of nowhere and thus have to rely on being self-taught. (I can't speak for the naive ones, but I've found in the past that gently nudging them in the right direction has mixed results.)

I feel lucky that before I moved all the way out here I had fifteen years of classical dance experience, a year of mentoring by a friend who had danced caberet-style as long as I had tap danced, and a couple months of lessons with Artemis. But I can tell you that it still wasn't enough, and I often find myself wondering what I'm missing.

Nia said...

Artemis Mourat is the teacher of my first teacher, does that make you my aunt? :)

I never met Artemis but I'm glad to hear nice things about her. My first teacher was certainly a great professional.