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*.