All / Originally Posted on Skirt

New Dance Research Films

I just posted some new videos from the Saqarah hafla on 12 September over on my YouTube channel.  They are a mix of solo performances (including one by my friend and research participant Lorna, who I’ve mentioned before, and one by Eshta, one of the Saqarah organziers) and group performances.  As I mention every time I post a new video, I’m no Cecil B. DeMille, but hopefully the skill of the performers comes through anyway.

Filming a dance performance is a strange thing: on one hand, I want to be in the room just watching it and enjoying it like everyone else, with my hands free for clapping; on the other, I want to make sure the performers stay in the frame and I’m not holding the camera at a crazy angle that will look weird later.  Even more difficult is deciding which performances to film.  I don’t have enough memory card space or battery to record every single performance I see so I have to choose which ones I’m going to film and which I’m just going to watch.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been watching something and thought, “Should’ve filmed this one.”  Or times where I watched a video and thought “I know that was much better in person–the stupid video quality is messing it up.”  So how do I choose which ones to film?  I’m doing a PhD, that must mean there’s some kind of legnthy scientific process guiding my choices, right?

Nope.  It’s a lot more arbitary than I should probably be admitting in public.  Basically, if it’s a show full of performers I don’t know, I take a random sample, unless I see something unusual in the program or something unusual about the performance is announced before it begins–I have to choose whether to start filming before the song starts, or else the video looks weird.  What I mean by unusual is a different style of belly dance (or something that’s being presented as a belly dance show that may not, in my opinion, count as such), an out of the ordinary musical choice, a prop I’ve never seen before, and so on.  Or if I think, “hey, I don’t have any examples of somebody dancing with a snake” or “I don’t have any student troupes dancing,” I might film it.  I want to have a range of different styles and skill levels in my data set in order to show the variety of what the term “belly dance” (or whatever you want to call it–I spend pages and pages discussing the contentious nature of this term in my PhD and I can’t be botherered to repeat all of that every time I use it) can encompass.  In other words, my filming these things doesn’t necessarily mean that they were the performances I most enjoyed or were the highest quality in the show, but that’s not the point.  Occasionally I might start filming in the middle of a performance, but I try to avoid that because it looks disjointed.  (On the other hand, the camera occasionally does things like randomly turn off in the middle of a song and delete what it’s recorded up to that point, so it might not be obvious that I do actually think about these things.)

If I’m watching performers I do know, the choice is a lot more subjective: I like having film of performers I enjoy watching, but I hate the process of filming it for the reasons I mentioned above; it means I can’t be fully present as an audience member while filming, which is frustrating.  So I either film it and just console myself with the fact I’ll have it later, or I don’t film it, actually enjoy watching the show for once, and then curse myself later for not filming it.  (Eshta’s drum solo at the last hafla comes to mind!)

Putting the films on YouTube?  A whole nother (that’s a technical term) can of worms.  I decided the School of Humanities and Social Sciences Ethics Committee would frown upon my work if I didn’t take the basic step of requesting performers’ permission before posting stuff there.  Even though I know filming pretty much anything and then posting it on YouTube without the permission of the people in the film is widespread practice (especially true in the dance community), that doesn’t make it ethical.  And I really want to graduate.  (The astute among you will notice that I didn’t obtain permission for many of the earlier films I posted.  I’ll take them down if people complain but my personal ethics don’t extend to bothering to get permission for the old stuff now.) 

But anyway, dancers get really, really annoying when you have films of them.  (Sorry ladies.  I’m speaking from a purely objective, scientific standpoint here.)  

They want to e-mail you the film first so they can see it.  They want you to cut bits out (what am I, Miramax?)  They want you to use certain tags so the YouTube search function can find their video.  They want you to link to their webpages.  Disable comments.  Enable comments.  Make the videos downlodeable.  And then you get a group of people who performed together and they can’t all agree on what they want. 

The worst is when I’ve filmed a group of people and then some of them also danced solos which I didn’t necessarily film.  Naturally this means I get snippy e-mails from dancers wanting to know why I filmed other people but not them.  I can empathize–ever see a slide show of an event you participated in and realize that you’re not in any of the photos?  I’ve had that happen to me.  It sucks.  So does the fact that I didn’t film whoever it was.  But I can’t go back in time and if you want a film so bad, bring a real videographer next time.  Yeesh.

Seriously, though, I am always grateful to people who let me film them and let me post the footage.  This is one of the most exciting pieces of my PhD, mainly because other anthropologists don’t usually get to do it.  I love seeing how many people and from where in the world my films have been viewed; I get to see the results of my research a lot sooner than most graduate students do–it makes me feel like I’m already in some small way having an impact.  And I couldn’t do it without the performers who let me post the footage of them, so I really appreciate their willing participation.