Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fantasy, appropriation and blather

The following is taken from a bunch of comments I made on Bhuz.com; 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?"

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