Friday, May 15, 2009

The trouble with "dance evolves"

One of the most common phrases I hear, or see, when belly dancers are talking about their love of fusion or non-Middle Eastern-centric belly dance, especially when they're feeling defensive about it, is "but art/dance evolves." They want to position their new dance not as something different to belly dance - because it still feels like belly dance to them - but as a kind of natural progression within the dance itself.

I don't have a problem with fusions and new interpretations using belly dance movements and themes, even though a lot of them bore me personally. And I certainly understand that it is natural for one's own dancing to progress and change and "evolve" on a personal level.

But I have a problem with the word "evolve" in the broader context of dance, and let me tell you why.

I'm not a creationist or anything. I believe that humans and animals and trees and suchlike have evolved from a variety of common ancestors, because that's the doctrine I grew up with and I have a fair amount of faith in it. I went to church schools and evolution was not presented as the Evil Opposite to the creation story; rather, the creation story was presented to me (by nuns) as a kind of myth explaining, in pre-modern terms, the way that God made the world. It was just that we now knew he did it via complex physics and over a long long period of time, rather than seven days of messy play in the sandpit. So evolution is not a dirty word to me.

However, I'm now aware that there are problems with the classic evolutionary model, because the underlying implication is that some things/people are more "evolved" than other things/people, and that those "more evolved" things/people are better. Evolution implies that people are more important than animals, fluffy cute animals are more important than gooey spikey ones, plants aren't important at all unless we want to eat them or make houses from them - in short, the only things that matter are the things that serve us humans. Who sits at the top of the evolutionary tree? Why, Man of course. And who sits at the top of the evolutionary tree of Man? Well, that would be white people. Moreover, this is part of nature, because evolution is natural! White folks at the top of the pile is the Natural Order! This was a very common position held by otherwise quite intelligent and thoughtful educated people in the late 19th and first part of the 20th century. Obviously, at that time it fed into continued racism against people of colour/"other" cultures, and the imperialist imperative. It was convenient for supporters of a certain well-known Holocaust, too. Today we can recognise why that is problematic. Ways of thinking about how societies and people work have changed.

There are similarly lots of problems with unexamined notions of naturalness in something that is fairly profoundly cultural, like dancing.

There's a certain irony to me in that some of the belly dance that tends to be defended most loudly with "but dance evolves" - the gothicky-tribally-fusiony-freaky-you-outy version - is being strongly driven by dancers in the US GBLT community. I'm not aware, however, of any of these dancers personally using the term "evolution" in this way - I think Amy Sigil said in an interview once that her own dance had "evolved" but that's not the same thing at all - and I should bloody well hope not. If there are any people who should question all unthinking notions of what is "natural" it's GBLT people.

But belly dancers can't entirely be blamed for believing that "dance evolves", because the evolutionary model is pretty deeply entrenched in belly dance culture. Every time a baby belly dancer visits a big thoughtful community like Bhuz or Orientaldancer or even Tribe, and is told "dancers need to research!", you can bet that most of said baby dancers will dutifully go to their library/Google and find books/sites about belly dance, and they will find books/websites that tell them belly dance is the oldest dance in the world. Should they pursue the sources, they'll wind up at Curt Sachs' World History of the Dance, which was published in German and then English in the late 30s, and became widely available in 1963 as a paperback, just in time for America's new belly dancers to start researching and justifying their involvement in the dance they found so fascinating.

Now, I have to confess I haven't read the entire book, just the section on belly dance, which was fairly cursory. It is a book I would like to own one day (donations gratefully received, hint hint). But I've read many criticisms of it. Anthropologists (Joann Kealiinohomoku for one) have been eyerolling at the continued use of Sachs in dance textbooks for about 40 years now, but it doesn't seem to have done much good. (I've also just discovered today that, oh irony, Sachs was dismissed from his job by the Nazi party because he was a Jew; fortunately he managed to move to the US.)

It's my understanding that Sachs, who was a musicologist rather than a dance specialist, believed that dance began in primitive times when primitive humans started copying animals, like birds, who do mating or territorial "dances". It's because birds and deer and other animals do things that look quite a lot like dancing, to us, that the idea of dance as innate and natural has come about. I can't say if Sachs invented this concept or, as is more likely, he just built on ideas other thinkers already had at the time. But he suggested that dance therefore must have evolved from hopping round like a bird in the caves to theatrical dance and ballet. Belly dance is a sort of early stepping stone, apparently. How did he determine belly dance was old? He also believed that cultures could not change what they did until they came into contact with other cultures; if people in "primitive" isolated cultures, like those in the Pacific or darkest Africa, for instance, were circling their hips when they danced, that meant their dance was very old. Circling hips = old and primitive. Voila. Belly dance must also be old and primitive, then, though not as old and primitive as hopping about like a hen. Also, it took place everywhere in the world, in every culture, until those cultures developed away from it. That, conveniently, means that belly dance is *everyone*'s dance at its core, since all our ancestresses were doing it back in the day. How it is that wicked Judao-Christianity managed to stamp it out all over the Western world and yet, somehow, fail to do so in the very cradle of Judao-Christianity, is a question even Wendy Buonaventura cannot answer. (Hint: it's because those Sensual Orientals are more primitive than us evolved modern white folks and obviously they were doing Judao-Christianity wrong otherwise they wouldn't have invented Islam instead! Right?) But that's another discussion.

(I could never understand how it was that, since cultures couldn't change till they were touched by another more advanced one, how any culture could become "more advanced" in the first place. Unfortunately I think the reason is that some cultures are just naturally "more advanced" than others in this view. Not an uncommon one at the time Sach was writing and growing up. When I get a good chance to sit down and read the entire book, I'll take this back if I find it to be otherwise.)

The chief problem anthropologists seem to have with this view is that it doesn't allow for independent creativity, which is particularly interesting given that "dance evolves" is the standard disclaimer for dancers who want to justify their personal creativity in belly dance. It's entirely possible for humans, whose bodies are put together in a limited number of ways, to independently discover that if they move this way, this happens, and if they put this and that movement together then it feels nice and looks good.

Similarly, I am fairly sure that the old notion that Ancient Man did absolutely everything for religious reasons might not stand up today. For sure, belief was more important in the old days. But it doesn't necessarily follow that Ancient Man must have danced entirely to placate gods or produce a super harvest. Ever since I was a child I've had issues with this. Maybe it's not a sun disk. Maybe it's just a nice round decorative thing. A plate with nice designs on it. Maybe they're not worshipping with their hands in their air. Maybe their hands are in the air because they just don't care and dancing feels nice and is fun.

I am a big believer in cultural specificity and taking into consider wider socio-historic and political elements when looking at anything at all to do with humans. But I also find it hard to believe that even pre-modern people were not sometimes simply making things a certain way because they found them pretty, or dancing, drinking, having sex and telling stories because those things are quite pleasurable and made the grind of harsh pre-modern existence less grinding.

So what does this have to do with belly dance today, which takes place in a variety of cultural settings and has a variety of cultural uses? To me, it unfortunately implies that the "evolved" dance is the better dance, the one that will win the natural selection race, the natural outcome of an old and no longer relevant dance form adapting to its new circumstances in order to survive.

And the trouble is, the people who are doing this evolving are generally western people. Western people with little to no interest in or respect for the places and cultures in which belly dance is a) culturally normative b) merrily "evolving" all by itself, thank you very much, in response to changing cultural contexts in Cairo and Istanbul and Beirut etc, are going around saying that their postmodern take on belly dance, which is "belly dance" because they show their bellies/undulate/are mysterious-challenging-sexy/say it is, is the "evolution" of the dance.

And that's wrong. It might be their personal dance evolution. It might be a reflection of their personal dance journey, their developing dance habitus, and the idiosyncratic cultural contexts in which they and similarly minded dancers find themselves, but it is not "the" evolution of belly dance. It is not the white man at the top of the tree. It is not.

Or maybe it is. And I have a problem with the white man at the top of the tree. Because I don't believe in him.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fantasy, appropriation and blather

The following is taken from a bunch of comments I made on; compiling some Bhuz chat is something I'll probably do here a lot. What sparked this soapboxing was a new dancer's lament that her fantasies about the dance, and thus her pleasure in it, were being lost. The dancer in question is pagan and had been excited by the old "goddess/childbirth ritual" stories at first.

[In talking about fusion, hybridity, the role of fantasy etc] you have expressed a lot of the ideas that I dug out in my thesis work. You are right - fantasy is not wrong! In fact, as my feminist post-colonial Lebanese supervisor said on at least one occasion, life without fantasy would be very boring. From a psychoanalytic point of view, we need fantasy and are constantly expressing and suppressing urges and fantasies in order to function as humans. Plus, if we didn't like fantasy, humans would not still love stories - be they myths or epic poems or novels or movies or TV shows or fanfiction. If fantasy was not viscerally important to us, advertising wouldn't work. I suspect if we had no imaginative mind sex would be kind of dull as well.

The style of paganism that you follow was created in the 1950s, not at the dawn of time, but that doesn't make it any less real or valid. Similarly, just because raqs sharqi began in the 1920s and is an amalgam of native dances and new influences, doesn't make it any less exciting or beautiful, or "authentic" if you want to use that word (which I don't).

Post-colonial critics have pointed out that *some* of our fantasies in the western/dominant world are harmful and painful for the "others" we fantasise about. They use very harsh terms to get their points across, terms like violation and rape. That is hard and horrible to hear, and that's why so many Western people, particularly women, who love things like belly dance want to come up with "excuses" or "safe places" like "oh but it is an ancient women's dance" or "but it's FUSION" or even "but I want to do it with honour and save it!"

What do we do? Quit? That's one option. But when belly dance has become so special to us, how can we? How can we cut off our well-meaningly adopted foreign child who we thought needed and wanted us and who we love as if she is our own? We accept that what we do is ideologically iffy, and we proceed with respect and caution and the willingness to take criticism and learn from it, for the rest of our lives.

And make no mistake, I know full well that this remains a way of making belly dance serve me. Belly dance doesn't need me. Not in its home countries, anyway. Outside of them, I think it does need the ideas that theories about hybridity and globalisation bring. But that also benefits me, because so far as I know I am the first person to research belly dance in that way. View my thesis at the University of Canterbury online repository! Interloan it for *your* next essay!

You are also right about the fact that belly dance changes in a different cultural context. Of course it does. For you personally, there is all the usual weight of orientalist fantasy that every western or colonised person carries to a greater or lesser extent, plus your spiritual beliefs, plus any number of other factors. That is fine! Nobody can be completely divorced from culture. Similarly, you are right about fusion/hybridity. The world around you *is* an amalgamation of different ideas and these days they flutter and fly all over the place.

Culture is hybrid. All of it. Belly dance is a cultural expression and it is hybrid. Something like tribal fusion, for instance, is a hybrid expression of globalised belly dance culture that has been touched by multiple modern subcultures, plus the contemporary cult of the perfected and controlled body (which we see in US orientale a lot too btw). Egyptian belly dance is a hybrid expression of contemporary Egyptian culture, and when someone like me tries to do it, it takes on other elements and flavours *because of who I am and where I am*.

All of this is OK! Your recognition of this stuff is *good*! Don't feel sad that your original fantasies don't quite hold water - you can still have fantasy and joy in this dance form, just in a more nuanced, thoughtful and ethical way.

As for the role of fantasy and belief in performance, I think it can contribute to some very powerful dancing. There are dancers - I'm thinking of one in particular - who are to my mind very "woo woo" about this dance. They talk about spiritual stuff that somebody obviously told them in the 60s or whenever, and a lot of it makes me think "well, oooohkay." But! That dancer's beliefs are, I think, what makes them so very good at the kind of performances that they do. They are a technically able dancer, yes, but they also believe quite profoundly that certain aspects of the dance relate to this or that cosmic thingy, and it shows in their intense and intent-filled performance.

If you want to honour the mother Goddess when you dance, you go right ahead. You are allowed. All you have to be careful of is saying that the dance form *is* a Goddess worship dance. If anyone asks why your dance is the way it is, you can just say "well I am a pagan and even though there's absolutely no empirical proof that belly dance is a goddess dance, I use it in my worshipful practice because it inspires the right kinds of feelings in me, and so when I belly dance I am honouring the Goddess."

On the term "belly dance" and "not representing the Middle East":

And that is our problem, because I can go nancing around and say "I do danse ORIENTALE" but people still see "belly dance". Similarly, it's utterly, utterly *wrong* to say "oh belly dance is not Middle Eastern dance - it *just looks a bit like it* but it is really a 100 percent whitebread American danceform and so nobody need ever think it has anything to do with the ME."

This is new, too. It used to be that non ME BDers justified their involvement because of a belief that it was an ancient women's dance (and we were all women) *and* that what they were doing was genuine and authentic and not a Hollywood fantasy but real, dignified ME/NA dance. Now we know that's not true and that a lot of the stuff we believed back then doesn't hold too much water, so we've moved on to "oh but it's FUSION" or even worse, "oh but it's AMERICAN." That latter is theft IMO. Theft and violation and abuse of another culture's things, often justified by "oh but they don't care about it the way WE do" or else "this isn't ME therefore I can do what I want."

When we belly dance we take another culture's thing, a culture that does not have the same power that ours does, and we turn it to our benefit. We cannot ever forget that. So we need to honour our ancestors or cousins in dance. If we pretend they have nothing to do with us we are hypocrites at best.

I wish I could think of a comparable example in, say, pagan thinking but I don't know enough about it. I would bet there are examples galore. As it is the only examples I can think of are tangled up with race and class (as is BD), to wit:

Does jazz have nothing to do with African Americans because white people do it now?
Does hip-hop have nothing to do with African Americans because white people do it now?
Does yoga have nothing to do with India because white people do it now?


Belly dance "has been tied to Middle Eastern culture" because it *comes* from Middle Eastern culture and continues to be part of Middle Eastern culture. You can't completely separate them till you: stop calling it belly dance; stop wearing two piece costumes; stop dancing to Middle Eastern music; stop using Middle Eastern instruments; stop connecting it to antiquity, sexuality and ancient wisdom; etc etc.

Is it so hard to say "belly dance is Middle Eastern but the kind I do is an American hybrid, and yes unfortunately people will look at me and think "sexy exotic chick from the lands of jihad," so I will always be respectful to ME dance while performing?"

BA (Belly Dance)

Apparently there's talk of Egypt offering a university degree in belly dance...

While I have a feeling it won't ever get off the ground, this excites me analytically because it makes *total sense* for Egypt's higher learning institutions, and particularly the government, to get in on what Aida and Raqia have been doing, which in turn is getting in on what American belly dancers have been doing. Belly dance *learning* is a much better income generator now than belly dance performance. Egypt has a resource that has become desirable in a different way than before. They'd be stupid not to take advantage of it! This is also, of course, a really powerful way that Egyptian dancers can continue to grow their stake in globalised belly dance.

I do understand where the critics are coming from, and I suspect it's not merely that "belly dance" itself is so bad, but that belly dance like a lot of things now taught in universities is really a trade, and universities are not polytechs. Well, not if many academics have anything to say about it, anyway. Vice-chancellors and boards have a different opinion. Universities are now being pressured to produce vocational courses that make money, which is not the same as producing theoretical and philosophical thought and in-depth research. To differentiate themselves from technical insititutes and appease the "university is for brainy things" tradition they usually add theory and history; unfortunately, in some fields (like media for instance) you end with graduates who know a bit of Baudrillard and some media law, but can't actually write for newspapers, much like plumbers who can explain how plumbing intersects with wider social concerns but can't install a toilet.

The other intriguing aspect of a potential Egyptian belly dance degree would be who gets to do it, and who gets to control the curriculum. The article implies Egyptian girls would be the students, not foreigners - but it would be foreigners who would flock to such courses and make them genuinely economically viable. Not many Egyptians are going to send their darling daughters off to belly dance school. Fifi, like Souhair Zaki, obviously thinks foreigners *in* Egypt are taking jobs from local women and, I imagine, envisions such a degree as being for Egyptians and a way of improving the status of dancers in Egypt. But its potential applications are much greater.

It's also a different way for the Egyptian government to control belly dance: what is taught, what isn't, what's acknowledged and what's erased. It would be similar to what happened with Reda and, shortly after, the Firqa, interpreting, reworking and re-presenting a state-sanctioned vision of Egyptian dance.

I can't imagine any institution being able to put serious controls on Fifi and Dina though.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Just holding my place

Welcome to my blog. This is a space where I'll talk about belly dancing, and particularly my ideas about how belly dancing works in our globalised world. Expect opinions!