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*.


  1. I share your sentiments, but could write that as eloquently as you have. I think a lot of it is a numbers game. The more people become involved with belly dance, the more likely it will branch out and continue to split and change.

    For instance in my area, there are at least 20 active performers, 30 teachers, and hundreds of students and I'm just talking about a 40 mile radius. Imagine if all of those teachers taught the "traditional stuff," well then our numbers would shrink again cause more than half of them would be bored out of their minds. So there has to be some innovation...I guess.

    Your statement, "When a belly dancer looks around her in confusion when she hears an Orientale intro because the dancer hasn't entered yet," really rang true for me. When I performed at our belly dance guild's annual show I was the ONLY dancer who did that. My beau commented that he thought it was really weird, "Your performance was great but it was weird how long the music played for before you entered." I told him that it was normal and acceptable, but it was weird that no one else did it. I guess people don't want to lose 20 precious seconds of their 5 minute set to be off stage.

  2. I was at a student show recently and left wondering where the heck the belly dance had disappeared to. There was tribal, gothic tribal, burlesque tribal, fan veils, bollywood, wannabe bollywood, etc... Out of 20 odd pieces, less than 5 had identifiable bellydance structure and/or moves.

    As a performer, I felt we stood out because we actually belly danced. As an audience member, I felt cheated, because that's what I had shown up to see.

    I understand the desire/need to do fusion and various other experimental things. But, like you, I miss belly dance.


  3. Greetings! Your blog entry has resurfaced on Tumblr. It's generating some interesting and civil discussion over there, which is awesome. I think since you wrote this post, the tribal and fusion communities have cultivated a greater awareness, appreciation, and interest in the cultural roots of the dance. Also, I'm of the opinion that 2010 was the tail end of the extreme and bizarre "fusion" belly dance trend.

    I'm pretty intimately involved in the tribal and fusion communities, and have been for at least six years, so I think I can speak to at least one perspective coming out of that faction of belly dance. My heart, however, is in the American roots of Middle Eastern dance, having studied with Artemis Mourat, Kim Leary, and now I'm proud to call Suhaila Salimpour my mentor as I work on earning Level 4 in her format. I also hold a undergraduate degree in Near Eastern Studies and speak intermediate Arabic, so I'm also not detached from the study the Middle East. (I'm just saying this so you have a sense of where I come from stylistically and academically.)

    So, all that said, here's what I wrote last night in response to your blog post (your feelings, I think, reflect a wider sentiment of frustration among the older and more experienced practitioners of the dance:

    I understand the original poster’s frustration. I, too, get frustrated with the pick-and-choose approach to belly dance, taking the movement vocabulary and severing it from its cultural roots. It’s one thing to present a fusion performance because a dancer chooses to do so; it’s another entirely to present a fusion performance because one doesn’t know any better or thinks that they don’t have to learn the more “traditional” stylizations because they’re a “fusion” belly dancer. For example, if I don’t play finger cymbals in a show, it’s certainly not because I don’t know how; I’ve made a conscious choice not to play them. A well-educated and well-rounded belly dancer will be knowledgeable in many stylizations, and if she (or he) is presenting fusion-style performances, she should definitely be able to perform in the more ethnically-rooted stylizations.

    Self-examination regarding this issue is VERY important, and I don’t think we’re overthinking it. Both the presentation and perception of belly dance are wrought with issues of feminism, cultural appropriation, orientalism, and self-exoticism. We can’t just go along as practitioners of a dance form with blinders on pretending these issues don’t exist and then expect to be taken seriously by practitioners of other dance forms or the general public.

    I believe that the more knowledgeable we are about the dance and its roots then the better we can make educated and informed decisions about how we present ourselves as dancers. Fusion should also be a choice made after many years of study. Personally, I think I could have waited a while before making the foray into Tribal Fusion. Many famous dancers perform fusion forms of the dance, but these dancers are also very educated in belly dance’s more folkloric and “traditional” stylizations. Many of them have studied “cabaret” belly dance for years, performing at private parties, restaurants, and nightclubs. They have made a conscious artistic choice to deviate from those stylizations, but also stay close to the cultural roots of the dance through continued training and workshop attendance.

    I’m also of the belief that education, training, and knowledge will give you greater freedom in your artistic choices rather than hindering it.

    1. Thank you, Ashara, that was a thoughtful and insightful response!