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The Role of Intention in Artistic Belly Dance
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The Role of Intention, cont.
posture; clean, precise movements; muscular control (e.g. shimmies and isolations); advanced movements like backbends or Turkish drop; and in the execution of the choreography or improvisation, e.g. the dance itself. Good dancers are continually learning, practicing, and refining their technique. Other areas that might fall under the category of technique are presentation (costuming, stage presence, makeup), playing the zills, and specialties like sword balancing or veil work. Technique is the vehicle for the expression of the emotion and the intellect.
Emotional expression is part of what makes each dancer unique, and is closely linked to the choice of music. With live music there can be an interplay between dancer and musician that gives an added dimension to emotional expression. Ideally, the music moves the dancer and the dancer moves the musician(s). You can hear this in live music performances if you look for it. With taped music, the dancer is also expressing the emotion she feels in the music, by choosing the piece that fits what she wants to express. The beautiful thing about emotional expression in our dance is that there is no right or wrong. The dancer is generating and expressing a unique emotional experience at the moment of the performance. The more genuine the emotion, the more developed the technique, and the more focused the dancer's intention, the more the audience will feel what the dancer is experiencing, and the more emotionally satisfying and artistically excellent the performance will be.
With intention we arrive at the third dimension of art: intellect. This is a huge subject, embracing, to name only a part, knowledge of the originating culture, structure of the choreography and music, selection of a costume to fit the piece as a whole, and the intention of the performer. Intention is the focus of this discussion, because I suspect that many dancers are not aware of this as an important component of their performance. The intention can range from the personal to the planetary according to the inclinations of the performer(s). The intention may precede the creation of the work, or it may develop as the work progresses. For example, a troupe may choose to create a dance of the Ouled Nail as authentically as possible. That is their intention, which is fulfilled as they research the culture, music, costuming, movement, and history of the dance. Their intention may also include a desire to contribute to people's awareness and appreciation of the dance or even to preserve it as the culture changes or dies out. That is one example of intention. Another kind of intention might be used by a group of dancers to convey the idea of "sensuous, proud women having a good time," or even to bring healing energy to the audience.
This last type of intention brought about a powerful experience for a group of us who performed many years ago at a benefit for AIDS patients. We were rather inexperienced as a troupe, and not too confident.  But we were united (except for one person) in our intention to express loving, healing energy in our performance. We had a very wonderful, very high experience with this show, and we received what I consider to be the greatest compliment I have ever gotten on a performance. After the show a man who was obviously very ill came up to me and said, "I want you to know that a feeling of peace came over me as soon as your show started, and it stayed with me during the whole thing. Thank you so much." We were all deeply touched, except for the one person who had not been able to share our intention. Why? Because he had focused on the many ways in which we were (in his mind) lacking--experience, skill, talent. He missed out on a heavenly experience because his focus was on his doubts and fears rather than on the intention the rest of us created and shared. He left the group soon after. He never did see what we had seen that day--the power of a lofty intention, especially one shared by a group.
When intention is not consciously formulated, unconscious intentions are inevitably expressed instead, and they are discernible to the sensitive observer. Lack of a focused intention is apparent in many performances I see by belly dancers. If a dancer doesn't know why she is out there, it will show up as a lack of energy or a chaotic quality to the dance. This confusion may even lead to projecting unhealed portions of the psyche during the performance (an uncomfortable experience for the observers). That is why work such as therapy, healing, personal growth, or spiritual practice is likely to show up as an improvement in performance ability, due to the increased mental clarity and greater focus that results from such work.
Given the sensuous nature of belly dance and the fact that women in patriarchal cultures are so often perceived as "sex objects" by others as well as by themselves, it is not surprising that unconscious sexual energy is sometimes projected by belly dancers. If "sexiness" is chosen as a conscious intention, it could be possible to use that with the elements of technique and emotion to produce an artistic performance. However, when the projection is unconscious, it detracts from the performance as a work of art, and is a contributing factor to the reputation for lewdness that plagues our art. Each dancer should examine the issue for herself and choose consciously the image she wishes to project, in terms of her sexuality. The fine line between sensuousness, sexiness, and lasciviousness is a personal judgment call in the end, but the way a dancer feels about herself and her dance, and the way she carries herself make a tremendous difference in how she is perceived. As she prepares for a performance, the dancer can ask herself what it is she intends to communicate in the performance, and then use emotion and technique to the best of her ability to convey that message.
In closing, it should be noted that no one of the three elements of technique, emotion, and intellect is more important than the others. There is a balance of dynamics that will be prersent in varying proportions for each performer. However, I tell the dancers I work with that, while there is no substitute for being prepared, at the moment of the performance, consciousness is the most important thing. If the dancer is centered and at one with her intention, she will be able to communicate artistically with her audience, even if the level of technique is basic. Focusing on the intention also helps with the emotional aspect in that it helps the inexperienced or nervous performer get past the "how am I doing?" conversation in her mind which invariably detracts from a performance.
The intention, or clarity of consciousness, allows the emotional expression to move between dancer and audience. A certain unity, or focus of minds, occurs when the dancer is truly communicating with the audience. In that moment, the timeless experience of art is present.
This article was originally published in Harrakat, the newsletter of the Middle Eastern Dance Guild of Eugene, and was reprinted in Caravan Trails, a Journal of Tribal Belly Dance. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
About the author: Dunyah, aka Denise Gilbertson, has over 25 years of experience in Middle Eastern Dance, and is director of Americanistan, a world music group which performs music inspired by the Middle East and Mediterranean.