Spiral Skies Bellydance

Bringing Bellydance to the Big Sky!

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Boosting Audience Engagement

Posted by Tessa Thompson on April 1, 2013 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (1)

Spiral Skies Bellydance presents…

More than entertainment: Engagement techniques to enhance audience satisfaction

As a performing artist, what are your fears?  Perhaps an audience responding with stark silence. Maybe an audience more interested in conversation and cell phones than the performance.  Or worse yet, an empty house.

In an effort to attract and retain audiences, dancers are experimenting with a range of innovative audience engagement activities.  The following techniques are tools you, or an emcee, can use to draw an audience in, then send them away with positive word-of-mouth.

Introduce yourself.  It seems like a no-brainer, but dancers often forget to tell their audiences who they are.  This is your elevator speech, a short summary used to quickly and simply define a dancer, your training or background, and the genre or specialty presented in the performance.  If you perform multiple pieces, discuss the meaning of or inspiration for the work.

Give them something to do.  Belly dance embraces audience participation.  At the opening of the show, teach the audience appropriate responses to what they see.  How to zaghareet, when to hiss, practicing a few Arabic phrases, or a room-wide “Opa!” will energize an audience before the dancer takes the stage.

Enlighten and educate. Prior to a performance with a prop, teach your audience about that special element.  Let’s take zills as an example.  Demonstrate the different sounds zills can make.  Discuss how zills are different from finger cymbals.  Then give your audience a task: Tell them to look for something specific to the prop, i.e., “Can you spot those in our troupe who are right-handed or left-handed zillers?”

Mind your body language.  Dancers use their bodies to communicate. Still, in the heat of the spotlight, it’s easy to forget the fundamentals.  Maintain proper dance posture with shoulders back and chest proud. Lift the chin, exposing the neck.  Smile with a slightly open mouth.  This stance is confident and open, and commands attention.  A closed body posture — hunched shoulders, caved chest, chin and eyes downcast, a pursed mouth — says “Don’t look at me.”  Your audience will take the hint and oblige.

Put your audience at ease.  Exposed skin is still socially taboo, especially in close proximity to others and in public spaces.  When mingling with the audience before and after a show (a great way to network and meet prospective students and clients), drape yourself with a veil or ghawazee coat.  This protects the dancer from people who might leer, and makes the dancer less intimidating because she is covered.  A semi-transparent veil or cut-away ghawazee coat effectively walks the line between social propriety and maintaining exoticism through costuming.

Kudos all around.  Always, always publicly thank your sponsors, venue, host, collaborators, and audience for their contribution to the show.  Mention them by name, if possible.  Make this announcement prior to the last performance while you still have butts in the seats.

By helping audience members understand the artist’s process and ideas, they can begin to interpret the meaning and relate to what they are seeing.  Once that connection occurs, the consumer is more likely to return for more.

Do you want more?  Then click on the tabs above for more blog posts, plus class schedules and registration for the Yellowstone Belly Dance Festival, Aug. 16-18.

Get to know "Betty"

Posted by Tessa Thompson on July 2, 2012 at 10:15 AM Comments comments (0)


I took my first belly dance class on the first Saturday of January 1975 at Meara’s dance studio in Dallas, Texas. I had never even seen a belly dancer but I wanted a fun exercise class and my sister-in-law told me a friend of hers really enjoyed belly dancing. After my first class I was hooked. Back then you weren’t considered a real belly dancer unless you could play zills while dancing. It took me a year to learn to do that. After a couple of years of classes the studio started sending me out to dance at private parties. I had a great time doing that but I never had a desire to become a regular dancer at a restaurant since I had a really good day job and small children.

My favorite thing about belly dance is the costumes. When I started dancing you had to make your own costumes. Since I could sew I had no trouble with that. In fact I also started sewing for other dancers, including my teacher Meara. In 2008 I purchased Desert Dancer Imports from my good friend Donna Thompson and retired after over 30 years as a computer programmer. I love making beledi dresses, harem pants and Turkish vests. I also enjoy making my Desert Dancer Flair Pants and Ruffled Capri Pants.

I don’t have any one specific favorite movement but I love everything folkloric. I loved what we used to call “ethnic” dance back in the 70’s and I was very influenced by Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat and belonged to an ethnic dance troupe called the Marrakesh Dancers. I think that is why I loved American Tribal Style so much when I started taking classes with Carolena Nericcio in 1997 when I lived in the San Francisco Bay area. Before I moved to Montana from Dallas, Texas in 2006 I was the director of a small dance troupe called the Tribal Crones. The three of us were all “ladies of a certain age” and we loved dancing together. I did all the music selection, choreography and costume design.

My greatest inspiration for my dance, both for costuming and for choreography, have been the Orientalist painters, in particular Jean-Leon Gerome. I was inspired by his painting of the dancer with two swords to create the first sword dance performed in Dallas in the late 1970’s although I only used one sword.

My current goal is to work on a cane choreography so I can perform in the Saidi dress I purchased at Ahlan Cairo Nights last year.



When in Rome

Posted by Tessa Thompson on April 5, 2012 at 10:00 AM

When in Rome…

Have you ever wondered why hosting troupes have certain guidelines for dancers to follow? As another open dance floor event approaches, we would like to offer a brief explanation along with some fun facts. Have you ever heard the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans”?

Interestingly, that saying has direct relevance to us as bellydancers here in Billings, MT. In Egypt only licensed dancers may perform publicly. Here, we have no restrictions placed on who can or can’t dance. In order for an Egyptian dancer to get a license, the dancer must perform in front of a group of commissioners. If the dance is viewed to be lewd or provocative, a license will not be issued.  Furthermore, bellydancers are forbidden to show their stomachs.

Ninety percent of Egyptians view belly dance negatively, a sentiment echoed in many other parts of the world. Billings, to a point, is no exception. Many people in our area have no idea what belly dance is, confusing it with a variation of exotic dancing often done in topless nightclubs. Most people aren’t even aware that there’s such an active and burgeoning  belly dance community here in the Magic City. Nor that at its base there is a strong community of women—all ages.

The way a belly dancer looks and the costume he or she wears also differs in acceptability from place to place. On one extreme we have Egypt, where it is a criminal offense to expose your belly. On the other side of the spectrum is Las Vegas—Sin City. As the name implies, anything goes.  People flock to Vegas every year to be shocked and awed. Billings, however, is more of a midline between these two extremes, though leaning toward conservative.  And, while area residents don’t expect us to cover up from headto toe, our family-oriented audiences don’t expect to see any parts of a woman’s body that they would travel to “Planet Lockwood” or “Shotgun Willie’s” to see. They like dancers to dress in a way that won’t cause their 90-year-old mother to suffer a stroke, or little Johnny to ask unexpected anatomy questions.

Layers and modesty still allow us to be creative and entertain our fellow Montanans. Fact is, they don’t mind being awed with our colorful costumes, ethnic music or lots of sparkles, but they don’t want to be shocked by low cut tops, high slit skirts and songs belting out profanity. Modesty is the key.

This brings us to choosing music, which can also cause headaches for us at times. But we do have more choices than some. Did you know that Greece, back in the 1930’s, outlawed all Turkish music? If you were a belly dancer you could only dance to Greek inspired tunes. Today in Turkey, most of their music is played by people of Romani descent, which perfectly suits the athletic, energetic style of Turkish dancers. In Vegas, as with costuming, almost anything seems to go. Here in Billings, the conservative nature of the community dictates that the music we perform to not contain words that may be seen as morally offensive. In public, family friendly lyrics are essential.

We are so fortunate that we don’t have laws inhibiting us like those in Egypt, or in Greece from decades ago, but there are moral codes that we follow out of common courtesy and respect for our patrons.  Only 12-years-ago, even in Billings, belly dance was taboo. We all want to see belly dance continue to grow and thrive; we’ve come a long way since those taboos, working hard to find acceptance amongst our conservative, fun-loving Montanans. We don’t want to lose the progress we’ve made. So if you’re wondering what costume to wear or what music to dance to, remember that old saying, “When in Rome…” or in this case, “When in Billings …”