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I’ve taken time out from the bellydance world, more or less, since New Years.   It’s given me some time and space to think about my experiences both as a professional performer and teacher, but also as a member of a diverse and vibrant community.

In March last year I had a very unpleasant interaction both with a friend in the community (someone I had met when we were both studying bellydance) and her partner.  The partner contacted me by text, phone and facebook to insult, shout and swear at me while accusing me of plagiarism.  He threatened me and threatened to hack my website and “permanently destroy it” (as if you could do such a thing).  The friend was unaware of his actions, but didn’t speak up to distance herself from them, instead she publicly defended and supported his accusation.  (She and I have since met, before Christmas, and are now back on speaking terms).

In becoming a professional bellydancer I never expected to be threatened or called a cockroach.  Perhaps that was naive of me.  I never expected to have a friendship ruined either, and perhaps that was naive too, for when we are both working in the same field there is the very real possibility of having to compete for work and it takes a special kind of relationship to survive that kind of pressure.

Around ten months ago I was blamed, behind my back, as being one of a number of local teachers who did not support a charitable bellydance event that was cancelled due to lack of early bookings.  I both blogged about it and handed fliers for it out to my students.  But, I believe, in making clear what portion of the event fees were going to charity I was perceived as not supporting the event (and the event organisers removed me as a ‘friend’ on Facebook).

My relationships matter to me.  People matter to me.  It’s been a pretty big deal to have had a friendship destroyed.  And being bad-mouthed isn’t that great either.

But on the up-side I’ve also made friends with people I’ve met in the community both in the UK and the USA.  These are people I am proud to call friends and to spend time with.

So this ‘scene’ seems quite dichotomous to me.  On the one hand there are groups and places where we have communities and sometimes even communes, mainly of women, learning to use and enjoy their bodies. Competitive behaviour, where it exists, is usually channeled into self-improvement in these spaces.  The ‘business’ side of the scene takes a back-seat to the community aspects.

On the other hand there is the part of the scene that is dominated by the struggle to make money.  Competitive behaviour is usually channeled away from self and towards others (though sometimes this is masked, I suspect due to how ‘unladylike’ and ‘improper’ competition is typically considered for women).  I’ve found most of the diva-like attitudes and behaviour I’ve encountered are in this part of the scene.

And I get it – it’s incredibly difficult to make a career out of being a bellydancer. In general the supply of performers and teachers far exceeds the demand.  There’s not much of a career progression either.  There is a huge gap between the local teacher and performer and those who are able to make their living at it like Jillina or Suhaila.

‘Getting it’ doesn’t mean I’m okay with it.  I’ve been burned twice by this part of the scene and on reflection that’s two times too many.

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Jean-Paul Sartre, a French existential philosopher, wrote that “Hell is other people.”  From what little I understand of his thinking, what he actually meant by that is quite complex although the gist of it seems fairly simple to grasp.  It’s that idea I sometimes hear, particularly from people who like to think of themselves as ‘lone wolves,’ the idea that life would be far superior were they to be alone without a requirement to deal with other people, particularly their demands and needs.

As the careful reader may have inferred from my writings this isn’t a position that I happen to agree with.  Sure, people can cause no end of misery to one another and I am quite certain that in my future work as a counsellor I will spend many hours walking alongside people in profound pain due to their experiences with others.  But this does not mean we’d all be better off alone.

Interestingly there is an increasing amount of evidence to show the links between certain types of mental illness and social isolation.  Learning is understood to be a fundamentally social activity.  We need one another.  In their work The Complexity of Connection, Jordan, Walker and Hartling write (on page 2): “…connection is at the core of human growth and development. Isolation is seen as the primary source of human suffering.  We believe that human beings grow through and towards connection.”

I have had a beautifully personal experience of that today.  I was in a bit of a ‘funk’, feeling a bit blue, a bit grumpy for no reason that I could fathom.  And then I went to teach my women’s group, and by the time I’d been there 10 minutes I felt all better.  After class finished I had a cup of tea with some of them outside in the garden and we chatted.  I felt all happy; the funk had been completely dispelled.

Community is a powerful thing, it has its good parts and its bad, but for humanity it is an entirely necessary thing.  I’m really going to miss teaching and spending time with those wonderful women when my sessions there come to a end.

My weekly public and private classes started back last week and it felt goooood.  I love being around my students, “my ladies”.  In among the hard work and concentration is always a fair amount of chat and laughter.  This term some of my familiar faces aren’t there, for a variety of reasons – uni & work pressures, moving city, having babies!  You guys are missed!  But we also have new faces (who will soon becoming familiar faces), all bringing their own personality and energy to class.  The diversity is fabulous!

It’s a nice, positive experience of community for me, and (I hope) others – even though it might only be a fleeting community of people brought together for one hour a week.  Hafla’s can offer more opportunity for socialising in a bellydance context outside of class, and I’m hoping to have more of an idea of when the next Edinburgh hafla is after this coming weekend.

Watch this space!

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