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.

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