Saturday, July 2, 2011

Let me google that for you

Not so long ago I saw a tribal performance, a perfectly nice one. Refreshingly, the dancers had chosen the sort of mizmar-heavy music that tribal dancers used to use all the time. The MC proudly announced that it was "traditional Egyptian folklore", and it was entitled Siret el Hob.


That was rude, but I couldn't help myself. And as the taqsim resolved itself into those first familiar notes, the validity of my snerk was confirmed.

For those of you who didn't bother to google, Siret el Hob was made famous by the legendary Egyptian singer Om Khalsoum, and it was written by Baligh Hamdi in about 1964. Which makes it as old as me, namely old, but not that old. Not folkloric, not traditional, not any of those things bar Egyptian.

Now, only a few years ago, this kind of mistake wasn't uncommon where I live. We had no live bands, no long tradition of Arabic music and performance, and very few resources. Dancers far more experienced than me and with all the good will in the world might have listened to that piece and assumed it was "traditional folklore". It has mizmars and it's played by the Upper Egypt Ensemble (Mazamar Sahara, an awesome album by the way). But I'd about guarantee the dancers downloaded that album from iTunes, just like I did, and if you can buy music from iTunes you can also use a search engine.

I appreciate that tribal dancers today, especially those who propagate the divisions between Them and Us, are unlikely to know who Om Khalsoum is, but maybe they should at least find out. Especially if they're participating in shows aimed outside the tribal bubble.

We do have a genuine issue with the term "traditional" in our bellydance world. In general the term "traditional", when applied to a song, means one that is very old, or at least old enough that we don't know who wrote it. For bellydancers, though, while there are many famous songs to which it's traditional to dance, the songs themselves are mid-20th century songs with known composers, made famous by known singers. Sure, Baligh Hamdi drew on folkloric traditions and Om Khalsoum's songs are so well known in the Middle East that they are kind of like Humpty Dumpty in their pervasiveness, but they're not "traditional" in the usual music sense.

It's like saying Love Me Do is a traditional English folk song. You could argue it, but really, no. And if Om Khalsoum sang it, it's first and foremost an Om Khalsoum song and all quibbles are off. If you're a geek like me you like to know who wrote it and when, but it's not as important as who sang it. And if it's The Lady, then you look very foolish if you don't acknowledge that at all.

Incidentally, I am not an Om Khalsoum snob. I don't object at all to tribal dancers taking on her songs if they wish to, and I don't think the view that only great dancers should try to dance to her work helps anyone. My first solo was to Enta Omri, and while it was far above me at the time, I worked really hard on it and learned a lot. If we all wait till we're fantastic before we try dancing to this stuff, we'll degenerate into a world in which "orientale" means "dancing to Arabic pop songs in a bedleh". Worse, we'll select a techno version of Lissa Faker and have NO IDEA what we're dancing to.

The same show included an orientale performance to Ana Fintizarak, described as Turkish, so the failing is not just on the tribal side. We need to check this stuff, even if only to avoid having some smug wanker, like me, sniggering in the audience.

It takes seconds to type the title of a song into Google. Read what comes up. Listen to the different versions that appear on YouTube. You might learn something.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My article on Gilded Serpent!

Lynette, who is going to be my roomie for IBCC, asked me and other presenters at the conference to write an article pertaining to our presentation. Although my presentation will focus more specifically on a tribal variation that was created here, I decided to write about "traditional" belly dance and how it's not the stale, stuck in the past dance form that is so often derided by people keen on fashionable trends.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

IBCC gets nearer

I've been periodically checking the IBCC website and finding it unchanged, but got a message on Facebook saying the performer lists were now available. I went to the site and lo! Not only is that information there, so is the list of speakers, including me! Amusingly, they've just lifted a reasonably OK photo of me from my Facebook and my bio from my Facebook fan page - which says a lot about how we use the internet for research! Thank goodness they picked a reasonably nice photo and not the one of me looking exhausted while smoking shisha or some really hideous picture tagged as me!

It now seems much more real. I already know that I will give my presentation on the Saturday (April 24) as part of a globalisation panel, but don't know yet which workshops will run at which times. Obviously once it's all up and established I will be able to plan my days around workshops, panels and movies I want to see. Then, it appears that in the evenings, there's the open stage performances, followed by the main stage ones. So it will be bellypalooza.

My main job, apart from doing my presentation obviously, is going to be keeping my energy levels good enough to do as much as I can. I look at the teacher list and I want to study with... all of them! Obviously that's not going to happen, so I'll have to pick wisely nearer the time.

Right now, I'm looking at accommodation options. It will be good to have that planned and out of the way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In more shallow news:

I have dry skin. My legs, in particular, would be ashy if they weren't white (well, mottled purply capillary colour, to be accurate). The state of the skin on one's body is, of course, of vital importance to the performing belly dancer, and finding the right moisturiser is an ongoing concern. Really thick creamy ones are great but seem to take an enormous amount of effort to get rubbed in. Who wants to waste precious minutes rubbing cream into one's legs when the gig is in an hour and your face isn't done? Not me. Oils and butters, like the marvellous Palmers, are marvellous but their moisturising properties don't seem to last - they sit on the skin and the skin beneath soon seems to dry out again. Plus, Proper Old-Skool Palmers is greasy and Nu-Style Palmers oil is oily, so your costume wants to stick to it for the longest time. Great for slathering on before an early night, not so great when you're prancing about in a split circle skirt in half an hour.

I am, therefore, totally telling the world about my new and exciting discovery: Aveeno daily moisturising lotion. This stuff is GOOD. Unlike every moisuriser I've ever used in my life, it feels not like a protective layer on top of skin of variable moistness, but like something delivering moisture. It's a lotion but it feels almost like applying a gel at the same time. In fact, it feels exactly like when you put a cream or lotion on your skin while it's still wet from the shower. Even if you haven't been in the shower. Amazing. It does have a slightly greasy feel on top of that, but it's not unpleasant, and it really does seem to deliver on its promise of moisturising for 24 hours.

What are your favourite moisture treatments for the body?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Seeking something real

Nearly six months ago I quit my teaching job with a large local belly dance school for a lot of reasons that I don't need to go into here. But the quitting allowed me to become more upfront about my growing frustration with belly dance as a product and the changes in the way it is marketed and sold.

When I started belly dancing in 1998, there was still a lot of fantasy attached to it. Bad, restrictive fantasy in a lot of ways - some of you I'm sure know the deal and can recite it by rote. "By women for women"/"ancient goddess worship"/"harem dance"/"Indian gypsy dance"/"exotic"/"sensual not sexual" and so on and so forth. Despite these discourses, or myths if you like, though, belly dance teachers continued to attach it to the Middle East and students learned that they were doing a Middle Eastern dance. Dancers may have cleaned up the gritty and unglamorous reality of how professional belly dance is viewed there, but they were up front: it's Middle Eastern. It wasn't necessarily presented as pure, but it was definitely not from around here.

Latterly - and the rise of tribal and tribal fusion is partly responsible for this - globalised belly dance is increasingly disassociating itself from those places of origin. People are no longer making up fantasies about their dance's roots - or rather, they're creating new origin stories that seem more honest, more true. Tribal is defined as American. American Cabaret is also promoted as American *solely*, not a recontextualisation of a bunch of Middle Eastern and North African dance moves and attempts to evoke the Middle East, which is what it was. Belly dance as a hobby has also shifted from being centred largely round personal expression and fantasy to fitness, and fitness only. It's become a workout. And, more than ever before, a product that we consume not by watching, but by doing. Specifically, we buy classes/DVDs/workshops etc. We must learn (read: buy) ever more complex combinations, new kinds of prop, different technical approaches, drills, other dancers' "moves". For those of us who still like ME dance - and in my neck of the woods, that's not many - there's the need to learn how to dance like "them", how to do baladi correctly, how to do shaabi, how to handle tarab, how to speak Arabic... As Hadia writes, belly dance as an industry has become oversaturated with these kinds of products, and for a dancer it's overwhelming. It's even worse for a teacher, especially one for whom belly dance is only a part, albeit a big one, of a fairly balanced life. The pressure to attend every intensive, buy every DVD, learn every new style and prop and travel internationally grows ever higher. Ultimately the dancer with the most time/energy and money to spend on belly dance sets the bar for everybody else. And there's little pleasure in that. Unless of course you are that dancer.

Academically, I find the proliferation of media and other products within globalised belly dance, the connectivity, the integration with other industries like tourism, and the recontextualisation of belly dance as a personal expression that does not need to be tied to fantasies of an Orientalised other fascinating. But personally I'm appalled at some of the attitudes and sense of entitlement I see within globalised belly dance, particularly locally. For every Kiwi dancer who thinks deeply about what it means for us to use and represent a Middle Eastern dance form, there seem to be half a dozen who think they can and should do whatever they feel like with belly dance because this isn't the Middle East. Strap on a hip scarf and wobble about, for it is party time, and who cares about the Middle Eastern bit because Middle Easterners want to take away our votes and swathe us in black from head to toe, dontcha know. (As for the black, these chicks should visit Christchurch or Wellington some time. We don't need no stinkin' jihad to get us dressing this way.) Or, at the other end, there's belly dance as workout/body sculpting, like zumba but with stage presence and, usually, sisterhood, or like burlesque with muscles. Belly dance is reduced to moves, completely disassociated from its cultures of origin and repositioned as reflective of a new separatist culture that draws, depending on its mood, from gothic/steampunk/"alternative"/BDSM/this week's "edgy" trend.

All of this is really interesting. Really interesting to study. But as belly dancer I'm just aghast, sometimes. Where did the belly dance go? Where did the thing I fell for go?

Right from the time I started there were always novelty pieces. Because we belly dancers knew that our dance was Middle Eastern and we had certain rhythms to consider and Arabic lyrics to work our way around that 90 percent of the time we couldn't find a translation for, and conventional ways to interpret certain instruments and so on, we liked occasionally to cut loose with something easy and funny, like a dance to Tom Waits' "Temptation" or the Red Elvises or Actual Elvis Presley, or the Hollies. Or something arty and serious, like a presentation of the descent of Isis to something vaguely Pharonic with lots of synth and thunderbolts. Today, though, belly dance shows seem to be 90 percent novelty act. When a belly dancer looks around her in confusion when she hears an Orientale intro because the dancer hasn't entered yet, when a belly dancer says "oh sorry I stood on your big T-shirt thingy" because they don't know what a thobe is... I wonder what the hell is going on. I wonder if too many BDSS DVDs (not ones with khaleegy, evidently) and too much Rachel Brice love at the expense of learning about the *reality* and *breadth* of belly dance with all its grit and sweat and ungainliness and complexity and yes, Middle Easternness, have produced a generation of dancers who can produce a tidy hip drop but who wouldn't know Suhair Zaki from Lady Gaga. They'd rather BE Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is sort of like a belly dancer, right? She wears false lashes and is sexy!

When I quit regular teaching I retreated, briefly, into a retro folkloric phase when all I wanted to do was cover myself in assuit and spiky wrist cuffs and become the Ethnic Police. Just get away from all that babble. I withdrew into a personal harem and created occasional events that were 100 percent Middle Eastern music and dance, NO tribal, NO western music, and only a little bit of performance. In a way I wanted the old fantasies back. I still do. Despite my transculturalist position and continued insistence that there is *no such thing as authenticity*, despite my full knowledge that when I say "100 percent Middle Eastern" that's a lie and a fantasy too, a kind of authenticity is what I crave. I want to get back to the real. I want dance that is up close, not on a stage, I want Om Khalsoum and shisha and dancing because it is beautiful and pleasurable and for everyone. I see a little hope in the growing interest in Turkish dance and oldschool American Cabaret, even though I'm too old and big for all that bouncing, myself. I want Cairo and Istanbul and hell, San Francisco 1973. I don't want to see you waggle your butt with a burlesque bow, calling yourself edgy. I don't want to see you lock and pop in a bikini with a dreadlocked sporran on top. I don't ever want to see a fan veil again.

I want to see you *belly dance*.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

International adventures

During 2007 and 2008, I wrote an MA thesis about belly dancing in New Zealand, which was duly marked and pronounced to be good. You can find it in the University of Canterbury library, and read it online here. It consumed my life for that year and a half. i read a lot of writing in the field, such as there is. One of the things that happens when your life is consumed by a topic, especially when it's not a widely written-about topic, is that you sometimes imagine idly to yourself "wouldn't it be SO COOL if Important Scholar X, who I am citing, read my thesis?" And also "wouldn't it be SO COOL if somebody one day invited me overseas to talk about my research, enabling me to meet other scholars in the same field and also maybe study some belly dancing while I'm at it?"

So you can imagine that I was reality testing rather a lot when I received an email from Barbara Sellers-Young inviting me to participate in a panel with her and Anthony Shay, among others, at the International Belly Dance Conference in Toronto in April 2010. Was I awake? Had I fallen unheeding and unheeded into psychosis? Or did those two idle daydreams just come true?

Accordingly, I'm planning my trip to the IBCC, where I will be able to do a ton of study, jet lag permitting. I am literally flying there, arriving the night before, and flying out the morning after it all finishes, hopefully without totally crashing afterwards. (For those of you just joining us, I'm in New Zealand. I'll fly to Australia and then direct to Canada. It involves crossing datelines, which is why I'm confused about how many hours it will be, but suffice it to say, it is no less than 12.)

I'm very excited by the intended instructor lineup, which will include Khairiyya Mazin, of all people, and Mahmoud Reda, Jillina, Delilah, Yasmina Ramzy, Sema Yildiz, Sera Solstice, and a couple of people I've studied with before - Hadia and Amel Tafsout. Based on the previous IBCCs there will probably be music classes as well. It's going to be incredibly worth it!

Now of course my job is to get as much cash together as I can for this, since there will be opportunities for buying music and other things. It comes at a time when I've stopped teaching dance, so the income I might have had from that is MIA. On the other hand I do intend to offer some short courses and will, hopefully, be able to pick up a few extra bucks from that.

I will post updates and reports from Toronto when it all happens, but in the meantime, join me as I prepare for this once in a lifetime opportunity!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Any minute now, belly dance will eat itself

Uh oh. I ranted.
n the 80s there weren't DVDs, videos were still new things, restaurant and bar owners still paid for musicians or DJs because there weren't the MUCH cheaper options of the electronic jukebox type technology that today replaces band, DJ, lighting technician and even chooses and supplies the music for you from changing top 40 lists. We were into pomo consumer culture but compared to now, it seems like laughably naive, sweet and artisanal times. Things did not happen as fast or change as fast. Belly dance was business but not the business it is now.

Belly dance now occupies a global consumer culture *of belly dance*. It's not about being the entertaining dancer any more. It's about students, workshops, costume sales, CDs, performance DVDs, training DVDs, festivals, weeklongs, intensives, showcases, haflas. When I started 11 years ago, in a very different milieu to Aus, you saved your pennies to buy music, zills and maybe a coin scarf or a cane at *one* annual festival. Today, it's overload. It's this style, that style, new style, fusion style, combos, drilling, new moves, drilling, technical differentiation, be new, be daring, break the mould, stand out, imitate, use this prop, that prop, all those props, new props, buy it, sell it, lose weight, emulate, drill, drill, go, go, compete, compete, beat, smash KILL your audience to keep your head above water, just to survive, just to be considered a belly dancer.

Any minute now, belly dance will eat itself.

It's exhausting. There's no pleasure in it, not unless you're a masochist or a capitalist (or analysing it, but sometimes that makes me as angry and frustrated as I am intrigued.)