Re: You Get What You Pay For

That’s the kind of aphorism costumers like to bandy about. What we don’t talk about very often is its corollary: you can only sell what you put some effort in to.

I was reminded of this when I took a Middle Eastern dance workshop with a very nice young woman from San Francisco about a month ago now. As many instructors do now, especially when they come all the way up to our little corner of the world, she had brought along some items to sell, including some accent skirts made by another dancer of her acquaintance. These were essentially two rectangles of stretchy fabric with enough space left at the top that you could step into them and pull them up over your hips at the hipbone level. That’s it. That’s all they were. No hemming, no elastic at the top edge, no embellishment of any kind–just two rough cut, partially sewn rectangles. In my over twenty years as a Middle Eastern dancer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more slap-dash, thrown-together costume item.

Yep, that’s all there is. Two rectangles of stretchy fabric tacked together. Posted from Tribe.net.

A close up of the accent skirt showing the raw, unhemmed edges. Posted from Tribe.net.

When the class saw these accents skirts (which retail for $25-30), the common thought, voiced by many, was “I can make that”. These whispers must have reached the instructor because at the end of class she gave us a little speech about how hard it was to make a living as a professional dancer, how most dancers have to sell a little merchandise on the side to make ends meet, how she could totally understand if we wanted to make our own accent skirt because we had no money to buy one, but please, oh, please, if we do that to at least give credit to the designer [my phrase, not hers] and point people to the designer’s web site and PLEEEEASE don’t make our own copies and sell them and compete with the designer.

To be fair, the accent skirt didn’t look bad once you had it on. Model is dancer Horizon. Posted from Tribe.net.

That little speech really burned me up and I’m not sure what made me the most angry: the whining about a dancer’s lot, the suggestion that we were somehow bad people for not wanting to shell out for poorly made accent skirts, or the unmitigated gall in essentially claiming copyright for a costume item that lacked both originality and workmanship. Let’s set the record straight.

For starters, the life of a performing artist has always been hard. That’s as true now as it was thirty years ago or three hundred years ago. You’re on the road a lot. You’re performing and bunking in a lot of so-so accomodations. You always have to be a business woman as well as an artist. That means doing a lot of other things besides dancing e.g. teaching, hosting your own TV program, writing articles, giving speeches, making videos (and now DVDs), maintaining a website, selling things (your own items or other people’s), and so on. You spend a HUGE amount of time working on your craft and very little time by comparison actually performing. And the bottom line is that no matter how much money you take in, you’re lucky to break even, let alone get back what you’ve laid out over the years becoming and maintaining yourself as a professional dancer. Being an artist always comes with a price and that’s ours.

To lay any sort of exclusive claim to a costume design, legally or otherwise, the key word is “originality”. You have to demonstrate that your design is actually something that you have significantly altered or reworked to make your own, not just a riff on the square accent skirt that has been kicking around among dancers since at least the late ’70s. From a business standpoint, the more work it takes to make the costume item in question and the more complex it is, the more likely people are to want to buy it rather than attempting to make it themselves and the less likely you are to be plagued by imitators.

There are always what I call “convenience shoppers”–people who will buy simple costume items because either they don’t want to take the time to make the items themselves or because the items are right in front of them. But if you as a costumer go the cheap, sloppy, and simple route, you can’t act surprised when people make copies for themselves or jump on the convenience store bandwagon with you. Buy a clue.

Re: 1001 Nights

Morgiana marks the doors of the other houses on her street to confuse the robbers. From Gustav “Tenggren’s Golden Tales from the Arabian Nights” (1957).

I was invited to perform in a local Middle Eastern dance showcase. The theme was “Dark Fairytales” and, after considerable pondering, I finally lit upon a suitable fairytale–“Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”. Specifically, I opted to do a re-enactment of Morgiana’s dagger dance from the story.

My first act, after picking out the music, was to see how Morgiana had been interpreted through the years. One of the nice things about the Internet is that occasionally you come across someone who has already done your work for you. In my case, Sherrazah Bint al-Waha had already looked for, found, and scanned different pictures of Morgiana’s climatic dance. All of the photos cited here are taken from her web page.

Although the story of “Ali Baba” is set in Persia, as you can see, Morgiana is variously portrayed in Egyptian, Indian, Art Deco, and Orientalist garb.

An illustration from an 1890s (?) edition of the “Arabian Nights”, artist’s name not given. I would call Morgiana’s garb here Egyptian or Turkish.

A completely Art Deco Morgiana. Artist is Lacy Hussar. The picture is from the 1921 Houghton Mifflin edition of the book.

This is the illustration from the version of the “Arabian Nights” I remember as a kid, probably a reprint of the 1946 Grosset Dunlap edition. Artist is Earle Goodenow. Morgiana’s attire is much more Persian here although don’t ask me where the peaked cap and face veil came from.

Another picture of Morgiana from Gustav Tenggren’s 1957 “Arabian Nights”. His illustrations show a strong Indian influence.

For my solo, I opted to dress in as Persian-like a fashion as I could. I wore a magenta and gold kaftan over a long narrow black dress and belted it with a turquoise and white hip scarf. Over my shoulder, I wore a lavender baldrick attached to a short, realistic looking prop dagger, a sort of mini-scimitar I had just gotten from the local comic shop. The dagger was heavy and I needed both the baldrick and the hip scarf to keep it in place. My hair I simply tied back in a pony tail. I had toyed with the idea of doing a half-turban, but decided against it because it kept slipping off. As it turned out, the theater where we performed was sweltering–80 degrees and 110% humidity–so I’m glad I decided to go turban-less.

I also decided to give a Persian cast to my dance as well. From what I’ve seen, Persian dance tends to be halfway between Middle Eastern and Indian dance–small amount of hipwork, large amount of upper body work, with a strong element of mime thrown in. There is a part of Persian dance where the dancer, playing a “tough girl”, pretends to be a man, showing off her biceps. I took that as my jumping off point, figuring that imitating a man as part of her dance would give Morgiana a legitimate reason to be packing a dagger.

I opened my solo being very flirtatious and feminine, then segued into the “manly” part of the dance–showing off my muscles, shooting my bow, drawing my dagger, using it as a mirror (pretending to look into a hand mirror is another Persian element), sharpening it, splitting a hair, and, as the music sped up, engaging in mock combat. At the end, I suddenly strike, stabbing the robber captain through, wiping the blood off my sleeve, and then walking out in an unsmiling fashion.

I’m not sure how much of the “chirpy entertainment turns deadly” mood I wanted to convene got across to the audience, but they seemed to enjoy it any way.