‘So… what is it you do again?’- One dancer’s struggle to be understood.
Them: ‘So, what do you do?’
Me: ‘I’m a rock and metal dancer.’
Them: ‘What’s that?’
Me: ‘Well, I’m part of a group of nine dancers that choreograph routines and perform them to rock and metal.’
Me: ‘We’ve adapted belly dance and other styles, made them bigger and more energetic to fit alternative music.’
*Nods but still looks confused*
Me: ‘You know, think really good club dancing to metal, but synchronised and polished.’
Them: ‘… So… what is it you do again?’
The above conversation is an exchange that I experience almost every weekend. I’ll be having a few drinks in Manchester, get chatting to someone when the inevitable question arises; ‘So, what do you do?’ For most artists the answer is easy; ‘I’m a belly dancer’, ‘I’m a pole dancer’, ‘I’m a burlesque performer.’ I envy these people with their succinct responses, which are easy to understand because the person they’re speaking to has seen or at least heard of their occupation. But how do you explain an act or concept to someone who has never heard of or seen it? They may be aware of the component parts, but when combined the resulting impression isn’t quite clear. It’s hard to imagine what it looks like and how it works. This is a challenge I face every time I try to explain what my dance act, RockIt Dance, is all about.
We started off by merging our dance background (belly dance) with our musical interests (rock and metal). It was clear that this was going to be a challenge from the start. Don’t get me wrong; we weren’t the first people to combine belly dance with alternative music, but we wanted to do it a little differently. On the one side you have metal, embodying aggression, energy and power. On the other you have belly dance, oozing flirtation, elegance and control. It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger meets Jessica Rabbit; not an obvious match but it has potential if both sides are willing to adapt.
At first we merely substituted Egyptian and Arabic music for rock and metal whilst using the same dance moves; hip drops, hip lifts, shimmies and so on. It wasn’t until we choreographed a routine to Slipknot which was later featured on Sky 1’s ‘Got to Dance’contest that we realised we had to alter the dance style itself for it to reflect the music and form a coherent performance. The reaction of the ‘Got to Dance’ judges, all of whom were professional dancers, both confirmed and denied our fears about being understood. One just didn’t get it and immediately interpreted us as a somewhat lacking belly dance act. One was blown away by how we’d adapted a traditional style to metal. The other gave us the most constructive and balanced feedback; they praised our distinctiveness but advised us to make better use of the stage and mix up our sequences. This confirmed for us that what we were producing worked and it could be understood and enjoyed with more work. Shortly after we started including more formation changes, diversified our dance styles and completely overhauled our act over a 12 month period.
After making some changes RockIt Dance became more sought after and we began working with a collection of alternative fairs and agencies, however I still found myself having the above conversation anytime someone ask ‘What do you do?’ I considered whether I could be accused of naivety having not considered how the type of dance performance I’d created would be understood before I decided to form it. However the combination of rock n roll and girls dancing seemed like a no brainer to me. The issue was perhaps not the act itself, but the preconceptions of ‘rock girls dancing’ that already existed. These presumptions often point to scantily clad, heavily made-up girls writhing on podiums for the pleasure of the audience. Even the simple term ‘dancer’ screams ‘stripper’ in some peoples’ minds. Therefore another challenge lay in explaining the difference between this commonly held notion of ‘rock dancers’ and what our act consisted of. The fact that we choreograph each of our routines, train for at least 8 hours a week and dance for the love of dancing itself and not just to titillate, has set us apart from other acts and led us to be described as ‘powerful’, ‘fierce’, ‘crazy’ and my personal favourite ‘domineering’.
The people who have seen RockIt Dance perform clearly understand it, enjoy it and can describe it. In that case perhaps my response next time I’m talking to that person in a bar about ‘What I do’ should be ‘You’ve got to see it to believe it’. It’s a mysterious and inevitably intriguing response that does run the risk of coming across conceited, but perhaps it’s the best way. Those that see us perform are always enthralled, especially the women in the crowd which is by far the biggest compliment we could ask for. Social media channels such as Facebook and YouTube allow us to reach a much wider audience, whether they’re viewers in other countries, potential clients or self-made critics of everything on the planet (i.e. everyone on YouTube). So if you’re the next person to ask me the question ‘What do you do?’ be prepared for an enigmatic response, an invitation to our next gig or having my smart phone thrust in your face with our latest video playing. I am a rock and metal dancer and I am here to be seen and believed. See you at the bar.
Performing to Piss by Pantera at The Alternative & Burlesque Fair, Sheffield, April 2013.