As belly dancing competitions become more and more common around the US and World, many dancers are choosing to compete for titles. There are as many reasons for competing as there are dancers. However, training and preparing for competition, even if you are not planning to compete, is a great way to improve your overall dance ability and presentation. So, how does training for competitions actually help you improve? Well, it challenges you to really look at all of the important aspects of your dancing from your technique to your stage presence, your entrances and exits to your grooming – EVERYTHING! It forces you to consider your whole performance, not just isolated details of your dancing.
When you decide to train at this level, its a good idea to first take a look at the judging criteria. These are the standards that the competition judges use to score the competitors. Judging criteria can vary among competitions and is meant to help the judges evaluate a dancer’s performance on the important details (or at least what the competition’s creators felt were important). In this article, I will be covering all of the basic requirements for most competitions and some extras to help you shine on any stage.
Keep in mind the judges, as well as your audience, have varying tastes and have a differing standard of what they consider “good.” It’s not uncommon in competitions where the judge’s winners and the people’s choice winner are not the same, and the people’s choice might not have even placed. The final winners are often very subjective and leave many in attendance wondering if the judges even saw the same performers they did. LOL
Note: this won’t be comprehensive. This is only meant to help you think about the areas of improvement you may need and to share with you honestly what the expectations are for public belly dance performances. Do consult with someone who can help you work out the details.
Alright, let’s go one by one through the criteria…
Whoever says, “image isn’t everything,” is not a belly dancer. In our dance style, it is. How you look, and I’m not talking about height or weight, I’m talking about what you’re doing with whatever you have. Everything needs to look picture perfect, because truth is, you will be photographed and/or recorded at every public performance and probably on Facebook within minutes. When you perform, you become “the bellydancer”, you’re not Sally in accounting, so you must dress the part.
Hair – Hair should be styled and controlled, and look different than your “day” look. Your hair should never look flat or underdone. No excuses, learn how to fix your hair. Experiment with products, ways of styling, or hair pieces and find a beautiful look that holds up under performance conditions, doesn’t fall flat or come undone during your show.
Make-up – Face make-up should be appropriate for the venue. Your audience should be able to see your facial features clearly, given the level of lighting on your stage area and the distance you are from your audience. The brows, eyes, cheeks, lashes, and lips must all be bold and easily seen under bright lights or in dark restaurants and be water and sweat proof. Tips: Test your makeup with a sweaty jog or workout session, if it holds up and doesn’t run, it’s probably safe in performance. Conceal bruises, bug bites, blotches, with a good body foundation like Dermablend. YouTube “Arabic makeup” you’ll get some great ideas.
Don’t forget painting those finger and toenails too!
Costume – Must fit well, be of good quality, and be appropriate for the style of dance and music you’re using. Not too much boobage to distract. Watch that your belt isn’t too tight and really puffing up the muffin top. Make sure everything is secured and that nothing will shift and show something unintended. Remove/correct any costume related distraction. Don’t forget accessories like glitzy bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and rings to finish your look!
Always were a cover-up (kaftan like robe) over your costume while you are not on stage, before and after your performance.
Isolations – Isolations should be clear, precise, and complete. Make sure your circles, figure eights, slides, pops, waves, lifts, and drops are true to their shape and complete. Don’t cut your movements short because you are out of sync or trying to go into the next movement to quickly. Savor each move.
Traveling steps and footwork – Footwork should be solid and sync well with the music. The feet should always look lovely, well placed, and never awkward.
Arms and hands – should flow with the body’s movements and be graceful. Arms should have some softness, frame your movements well, and transition naturally as you move. Hands should never be distracting by moving excessively or making strange shapes, like claws, flat with closed fingers, or bending in the wrists too much.
Transitions – Movements should flow well together. Changes in movements, steps, directions, etc must be made gracefully. Your improvisation/choreography should never look as if it’s being counted 5-6-7-8, but flow seamlessly from move to move.
Shimmies – You want strong, consistent vibration, that doesn’t falter or breakdown. Be able to match your shimmy’s intensity with the music. Keep building the required strength endurance in your legs with lots of practice.
Above technique, it’s always important to maintain good posture and appear calm and relaxed during your performances. Your overall dancing should always look natural and effortless.
Style – Represent the style of the music you are using with appropriate movement and gestures for that style, especially if it’s folkloric or traditional. You should know what you are dancing to and your movements should be congruent with your music choice.
Tarab/Emotion – Feel and convey the emotional content of the music. Get the lyrics, know the overall “feeling” of the song, find key phrases to demonstrate with movement expression.
Responsiveness – Your movements should respond quickly to obvious changes in the tempo, rhythm, mood in the music. If the music changes, you should too! If the music stops, you should stop too.
Staying in Character – From the beginning of your entrance to your exit when you are completely off stage, stay in character. Don’t just schlep on and off stage. Have a dance-based plan to whisk you on stage and a plan to leave them wanting more as you exit. Always bow and thank your audience for sharing this incredible moment with you. Don’t forget to thank the band, if you have one.
Use of Stage – Use the stage you have. Move around. Avoid being in the same spot for a long period of time. As well, avoid moving incessantly. Face your audience most of the time and if you are performing to an audience located on more than one side, make sure to share your face-time among all sides of your audience. You don’t want to leave anyone out.
Stage Presence – Do you take ownership of the stage or do you apologize your whole performance, as if you don’t belong there? Be the diva! Boldly express yourself through dance and interact with your audience by making eye contact and sharing the feeling of the music between you and them.
Originality – Be yourself! You are the best YOU and you will never be great being like someone else! Every dancer has a unique set of assets, moves, and details they excel at doing, that looks good on their body and feels natural for them. Know your assets and highlight those in your performances. Don’t put in moves that you can’t execute well. Leave those moves out until you do them well. Pick and choose movements you would like to add to your own dance vocabulary, and avoid using someone else’s material verbatim. If you stay true to yourself, you will always be an original and you will always create something unique, then if you tried to dance like someone else.
Overall Entertainment Value – If you are performing publicly – newsflash – you are an entertainer! It’s up to you to decide if you are going to acknowledge and accept that or if you are going to deny the reality. With denial, you risk putting your audience to sleep, even the dance artiste can see the value of keeping their audience engaged. So, it’s wise to keep this in mind when you design your performances. Keep it exciting and interactive. It’s always a good idea to use upbeat or dynamic music, makes your job of raising the energy of the room easier. Slow numbers don’t have to lack expression, they can be dramatic and communicative with your audience. Amp up those drum solos with lots of outbound energy and excitement. Always have a “schtick” like a prop or specialty dance that you are really good at, to wow the crowd with how much you know and your range of ability.
Some Finer Points
Know Your Place
Competitions now have a myriad of categories to fit the various styles and abilities we commonly have in Oriental dance. You should take care that you are choosing the right categories for your skill and style. All the details should be congruent: style, music, costume, and movement. Be sure to read the rules carefully or you risk disqualification.
Outside of competitions, it’s still very important to know where you are performing, for what kind of audience, and their expectations. Dance isn’t about just showing up and doing what you always do. It’s about cultural and social sensitivity and flexibility. Know the venue. Is the space large or small? Stage or restaurant? What in your repertoire will work well in that space? Modify it. Is your music appropriate and personalized for this venue’s audience? Are they mainly American, Greek, or Arab, etc? Or is the audience mainly other dancers? What costume will the audience appreciate the most, sexy or conservative? Learn what works best for different people and places.
Mind the Time
Competition often has strict time limits for performances. Contestants risk their music being cut off, abruptly ending their performance, if they go over that limit. While outside of competition, you will find softer limits at large dance events, smaller events and gigs may not have a limit and you will have to use your good judgment when deciding song or set length. A good guideline is up to 5 minutes for each song. Not that you won’t ever have a longer song, it’s just a general rule. You can refer to my YouTube videos Choosing A Great Song Part 1 & Part 2 for help with choosing appropriate music for your performances.
Not all competitions have this category, however, it is safe to assume that you are always judged by your friendliness and professionalism. Having a diva mindset, where you mistreat or are unkind to other dancers, staff, patrons, etc is never flattering. Dancers that are pleasant and friendly will always fair better in the dance world because people will be more comfortable working with them. I have heard gossip, in private, of course, about some big names that event sponsors are shunning because of rumors of difficulty working with those dancers. So, it’s very important to always be nice and courteous at events, shows, and gigs.
Always Bring Your Best Game
Whether it’s a judge at a competition, a future student at a dance event, or a potential gig at a restaurant, you never know who is watching you and what opportunities they may bring you in the future. Never, ever, take a performance for granted. One of my teachers Saqra, shared with me when she danced at a restaurant for an audience of only two or three people and one of them remembered her performance and referred her for a TV commercial gig. Always do your best, even if it’s not under the best conditions or circumstances. Prepare for each and every performance every time and give them a show, where you leave them wanting more.