Friday, 9 December 2011

Faster. Higher. Stronger. Or not?

Today's burning issue: Should you do it just because you can?

The Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" has never been more apt. Olympic athletes today have more speed, height and strength than ever before. By way of example, the fastest man in the world today is Usain Bolt. His current 100 metre men's sprint record is 9.58 seconds (set in Berlin, 2009). Compare that with the first-ever official men's 100 metre record, set in Paris in 1891, when Luther Cary sprinted the distance in 10.80 seconds. To put that into perspective, if we could have time-travelled a peak-form Cary to Berlin in 2009 to compete in the final that Bolt set his record in, and have guaranteed that he would run the distance in 10.80 seconds, he still would have finished 0.46 seconds behind the slowest person in that race (who, for the record, was Darvis Patton at 10.34). That's right - all eight runners in that 2009 final were significantly faster than the 1891 world record holder.

Thanks to the virus my blog installed on your computer so that I can see you via webcam, I can tell you're wondering what on earth all this has to do with dancing.* It has A LOT to do with it, because the parallels are the same. Professional ballet dancers, for example, are now expected to be more flexible and have more stamina than the dancers of 100 years ago. This doesn't mean that the dancers of 100 years ago were terrible, but it's highly unlikely that a dancer of their standard would find work with a professional company today. Exhibit A.

It's not just ballet, either. You only need to compare clips of Egyptian Golden Age dancers with those of dancers like Randa Kamel and Suhaila Salimpour to see the difference. Crucially, however, there are still belly dancers who aspire to dance like the belly dance stars of fifty and sixty years ago. In large part, this is because belly dance has always had room for performers who can overcome their lack of training or limited physical range by connecting with the music and the audience (Egyptians, in particular, place a great emphasis on a dancer's emotional range, with some dismissing Kamel's style as "too Westernised". So cultural origins play a part too). Belly dance's roots are in folk dancing, which goes some way to explaining its continued popularity as a hobbyist pursuit, but in common with burlesque it has an element of populist "showbiz" that "high art" forms of dance can sometimes lack.

As far as sport goes, the changes in what's physically possible for humans to achieve is exactly what events like the Olympics are for. The measurements are wholly objective, even for sports with nominal elements of artistry like gymnastics and figure skating. In the context of dancing, the ability to execute technically difficult moves may well come at the cost of something less easy to quantify, such as emotional expression. There's not a lot of room for conveying nuance when your face is pinched with concentration.

It's a fact that art evolves, but I've seen student belly dancers do difficult moves badly, often for no other reason than to demonstrate that they "kind of" can do them. Quite often it will taint what is otherwise a really solid performance. It bothers me because it contributes to the idea that belly dancing is one of those undemanding pursuits that anyone can "kind of" do "well enough" if they have hips and the inclination.

The author demonstrates her "less is more approach" to costuming,
and how blogging has improved her strength and flexibility.
For many Western belly dancers (who, like me, often come to it as adults when the window for being moulded into a rubbery acrobat has long since closed), there is a perceived challenge to be seen as "real" dancers despite the fact that belly dance doesn't require the gravity-defying leaps and joint-straining positions of other mainstream dance forms. This is, of course, ridiculous. There are many professional, amateur and hobbyist belly dancers who work incredibly hard and are as or more accomplished than dancers in other genres. It's not the fact that I can't put my leg behind my head that makes me a bad dancer - it's that I don't breathe properly when I dance and have terrible posture that makes me a bad dancer.

Besides, there are belly dancers like Anasma who have come from other dance backgrounds to create something wholly new: belly dance, but not as Tahia Carioca would have known it. There are so many different kinds of belly dance now, and all so different from each other, that the fact there's still one umbrella term to cover all of them is frankly astonishing.

I say all this to clarify my position: I'm not anti-fusion. I'm not anti-physicality. And I'm not against people using belly dance as a spring-board for creative self-expression - though I still reckon that student haflas are not the place for that piece about how your mum gave you a gimp mask for your tenth birthday. My beef is solely with swapping out dancing in favour of nifty stunts.

A couple of years ago I saw an otherwise very good dancer attempt to do the 'bridge' yoga position in the middle of her choreography. Apropos of nothing in particular, she performed a perfunctory amount of floorwork and then pushed herself (with evident effort) into a back bend. It didn't fit with the music. It didn't fit with any of the other phrases in her choreography. The only possible reason she had for doing it was to demonstrate the flexibility and strength of her back. In the context of a dance, that's not a reason. In the context of a gymnastics routine, it's a very good reason. I have the same gripe about the splits. While sometimes it's a very useful tool, carrying the dancer fluidly from standing to floorwork and back again, more often than not it's done as a stunt - "Hey! Look at me! I can do the splits!"

It's fine to have a signature move, but not if it gets shoe-horned into every performance whether it needs to be there or not. This is never more evident than when you see a dancer who has made a demanding move a core part of each of their choreographies. I'm not just whinging about this because I have all the bend and flex of a concrete lamp post, although I'm not too proud to admit that I am impressed by the very flexible.

The loss of originality, grace, expression, artistry and sheer pleasure from dancing is a real risk for dancers who focus solely on their athleticism. Having said that, conditioning, strength and flexibility all make for better dancers, because they help to extend the range of motion and, hence, dance vocabulary. Knowing when to keep the party tricks in the box is as much a skill as being able to perform them.

Recommended further reading:

Ballet postures have become more extreme over time (via Science Blogs)

Simukova in a Nutcracker that's way ahead of its time

*Just kidding - you look great.

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