Dance contests are nothing new. Television has everything from “Dancing with the Stars” to “So You Think You Can Dance.” But in the Northwest, the dance competition has added a twist not available most places: the Belly Dance Off. Started in 2010, the Belly Dance Off is divided into three preliminary rounds, yielding three Rising Star finalists and three Pro finalists that compete in an annual grand championship for titles, trophies, ribbons, tiaras, cash, and other prizes.
On Sept. 13, Round 3 of the 2015 Belly Dance Off takes place at Seattle’s Club Sur, 2901 First Avenue South. Starting at 5:30 p.m., the dancers take the stage in their best costumes, draw songs from a hat, and then perform with House of Tarab, a 7-piece ensemble. Judges give their feedback live before the audience and then the finalists will be announced. The evening also includes an invitation to the audience to participate in a “best shimmy” competition during a halftime break.
Producer/director Suzanna Davis, who performs professionally as Suzanna, talked recently about how she started the Belly Dance Off that echoes TV talent shows but means so much more to the audiences and the dancers.
Rosemary Jones: How did you come up with the idea of the Belly Dance Off?
Suzanna Davis: Working as a professional belly dancer for the past 13 years, I’ve encountered numerous biases among audiences and the broader dance community towards this art form–biases from decades of stereotypes and misinformation, sometimes reinforced by belly dancers themselves. So I asked my inner muse to design an event that would engage and educate the broader public in a lighthearted and entertaining way; elevate production standards beyond what usually takes place in restaurants; and accelerate our talent through healthy feedback and dialogue on what to emphasize and what to work on.
RJ: How does having live judges and audience participation play into this?
SD: In my format, the live judge feedback after each performance is aimed at really helping the performer rather than igniting sensationalism. This feedback also hooks the audience into the action–since the audience is responsible for scoring the dancers (they have 85% of the vote), they pay close attention to the many details involved, and leave with a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the belly dance art form.
RJ: What’s the age range of the competitors?
SD: There is no minimum or maximum age limit. Those who’ve participated thus far range from ages 11 to 63. We also have no restrictions on gender, and have had a male belly dancer compete.
RJ: What type of songs do you throw into the hat?
SD: Arabic classics that all Egyptian cabaret soloists on a professional track would be expected to know. During my training in Cairo I had the opportunity to see this art form on big stages with full orchestras. Whereas it is more common today to see a belly dancer with recorded music, seeing and hearing how the dance and music interact as it is being created is a richer experience. We’re incredibly fortunate to also have some excellent bands in our region playing this music. I wanted to encourage more dancer-musician collaboration while underscoring the skill of improvisation.
RJ: Is there any type of music that doesn’t work for belly dance?
SD: You’ve just opened a can of worms. No, actually. Belly dance has been fused, re-purposed, and reconfigured into a variety of formats and sub-cultures around the world. Experimentation is now more exciting than ever, particularly in Seattle! But Arabic style belly dance (called “Raqs Sharqi”) only really works with Arabic music–the emotion, timing, emphasis, and technique are unique. Thus far, Belly Dance Off has stayed within the Arabic tradition, but it would be fun to venture out, assuming we have the right live band of course.
RJ: Who turns up for these competitions?
SD: Many are friends and family of participants, there to support and cheer them on. The event itself has also developed some loyal fans–I love this community building aspect! We end up with a very diverse crowd, both in terms of culture and age range.
Advance tickets and reserved VIP tables for the Sept. 13 “Belly Dance Off” are available through Brown Paper Tickets. Check the competition’s website for more details and videos from past competitions.