Belly Dance and Free Software

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The San Francisco Bay Area is a hotbed of innovative technological development and a crucible for the growth of performance arts. One art that thrives in the progressive creative environment of the region is the belly dance. From elegant performers draped in bead-encrusted costumes dancing in upscale restaurants to the colorful, turban-bedecked entertainers at Renaissance festivals and street fairs, for more than 100 years belly dancers have shimmied their way into every strata of contemporary pop culture.

Middle Eastern dance arrived in the United States in the last quarter of the 19th century, appearing in cultural exhibits at various World's Fairs. Little Egypt was the first dancer to garner fame and prestige while performing at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Her amazing performances were so popular that the entertainment director of the fair, impresario Sol Bloom, hyped her in advertising with his newly coined term, belly dance.

Although more formally known as Middle Eastern dance, the slang term belly dance persists, encompassing a range of styles from traditional ethnic forms, including the Egyptian Raks Sharki, Arabic for “dance of the east”, to the highly stylized American Tribal Style and experimental Raks Gothique techniques. Each method is defined by its own unique blend of music, costume and movement vocabulary.

The Gypsy look takes a number of forms from traditional or historically flavored looks to more glamorous costumes, such as Hannah's stylish beaded version. Gypsy dancers ring the Mediterranean Sea and take many forms from the stylized Flamenco to the flirty belly dances performed in Turkey and Egypt.

Belly dance appears in a variety of venues. Dancers assemble a wardrobe of costumes to suit different performance needs. Simone wears her modern wild animal costume to performances where she can demonstrate her wit and vivacious style.

Belly dance is most often seen in intimate venues. However, there are the occasional gala shows where dancers pull out all the stops with high-style Egyptian costumes, such as the one Setareh wore on a large stage at a formal dance concert.

Tempest embodies the look and attitude of the new generation of dancers who infuse traditional belly dance style with a modern edge. Her signature style and Goth sensibilities are reflected in her highly personal costume style, which easily could be worn in a variety of venues from nightclubs to Renaissance fairs to belly dance festivals.

From motion pictures to MTV videos, on television sitcoms and even at local ethnic restaurants, belly dancers are highly sought-after entertainers. Therefore, working belly dancers require professional-grade IT tools to meet their publicity needs with style and panache. Audiences and potential clients have become more sophisticated, demanding a higher degree of polish and professionalism.

Gone are the days when a simple 8" x 10" black-and-white glossy photo served as a dancer's complete marketing package. Teachers need a way to get the word out about classes and performances. Professional dancers have to advertise their skills, services and show times. With the right tools, dancers can develop their own marketing packages. Today's advertising needs include business cards, flyers and Web sites.

Enter Free Software

Dancers now use computers for their own unique set of needs in marketing, music and sometimes also video. Like emergent innovation in dance in the Bay Area, GNU/Linux and other free software truly invite exploration.

This article is based on our collaborations with several Bay Area belly dancers and a digital photography workflow that is done entirely with GNU/Linux software. We describe two example successes using free software tools for belly dance marketing applications. In addition, we explore some really interesting intersections of free software and belly dance, both as an art and as a business. The sense of community, as in GNU/Linux community, has apparent parallels with the dance community. To contextualize this topic further, we talked with several professional dancers to get their take on the role of technology in their art and in their woman-owned businesses. One example was Michell Joyce, who says, “I really believe that my Web site is responsible for my professional dance career.”

Challenges also are present in dance business promotion, where content also needs to educate. Amy Luna Manderino says of her dance group Shuvani, “Although our talents are diverse, they are all connected through Shuvani, in which we perform Romani music and dance from India, Turkey, Egypt and Spain. The biggest challenge is educating the public about the Roma (Gypsy) Trail. Many people are unaware that Gypsies are an ethnic community with a rich cultural heritage....That's always the challenge when you produce something in an artistic medium that hasn't been seen before, you have to educate people on the concept.”