The Arts & Social Change dialogue has many voices. Mine emerges through a lifetime journey studying a diversity of dance and movement forms, each style always with its own distinct community and culture, with very little crossover. Across these dances I’ve traveled, always wondering why so few of us do. In these travels I’ve encountered troubling biases and limited perceptions, those that naturally take root where segregation exists. Specifically, when crossing borders between the dominant Western forms – ballet, contemporary, jazz, hip hop, and the like – and those considered more exotic or ethnic, such as belly dance. There is a palpable sense that dances outside this majority are not high art. Having trained extensively in Egyptian belly dance as well as these dominant forms, I can attest I’ve worked just as hard developing my technique in belly dance as in ballet. On the other hand, belly dance communities mostly keeping to themselves helps these biases remain.
Yet, in my ventures out of this sanctuary for cross-training, traveling from dance class to dance class throughout various Seattle studios, I am again faced with the segregated status quo. I realize that studios need to look out for their financial survival by holding classes that get attendance. However, the consistent lack of assimilation suggests underlying biases beyond just “preference,” a pattern that is also mirrored in dance productions and public events.
Decision makers on arts funding emerge from the top ranks of dominant Western forms. Naturally, they designate limited resources toward what they know and recognize, constraining opportunities for the public to access and discover other styles. The more under-resourced the non-Western forms become, the less competitive their presentations are for proposed funding – those informed few that even bother to apply. The cycle of homogenization and marginalization is perpetuated.
As with lack of diversity on any subject matter, the variables that bring it about are numerous and complex. Observing the dominance of contemporary dance in the arts scene worldwide, I have wondered if creative freedom is the key ingredient that makes a dance form prevalent? Whereas contemporary dance was intentionally designed for unlimited expression and unbound by the rules of any one style, many non-Western forms are recent offspring of folk dance, which involves greater emphasis on accurate cultural representation than pure creative interpretation. Yet nearly all dance was folk dance at some point. So what is "The Tipping Point” (to borrow from Malcom Gladwell) that propels a style into the mainstream mix? Greater inclusion of non-Western forms would provide the fertile ground needed to broaden creative applications.
But beyond implications of equity and inclusion, the segregation of dance just feels viscerally unnatural. Regardless of style, it all lives within and comes from one physical and sensorial place – my body, the only one I have. Dance, like music, is humanity’s universal language. The more dances I learn the more universal it becomes, as I discover similarities that seem to hold the secrets to our historical connections. The more dances I try on, the more movement I discover and the more languages my body learns to speak. With this diverse training my strength and expression has become magnified in every style, as I selectively draw from a broadening palette of movement.
Recently after taking a ballet class at a local Seattle studio, I inquired about the possibility of offering a belly dance basics class there, and got this reply: “Well of course we wouldn’t offer that in our regular class schedule, but you’d be welcome to look into renting when the studio is available if you want to organize your own class.”
This studio also offers modern, jazz, hip hop, yoga, etc. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gotten this, or similar responses. Our daily lives are filled with so many subtle isms and biases like these. If dance (like all art) mirrors society, what does this artistic segregation and marginalization say about our underlying attitudes on pluralism and multiculturalism? And so I envision the day when a diverse menu of classes in addition to the usual fare can be found in any urban studio. For now, I remain grateful for the groundbreaking work accomplished with Forge Dance Theatre.
Randa Jarrar’s “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers,” published earlier this week in Salon, has triggered a wave through national media, with counter articles in The Atlantic and Washington Post. Concerns over cultural appropriation have been lingering in other cultural arts for years. It had to find its way to belly dance sooner or later.
Belly dance, like any dance, is an art, and art is far more complex and sophisticated than this hackneyed debate. Art is an untamed and wild element of the universe, rapidly mutating and proliferating. Art belongs to everyone, particularly to those most passionate about it. It cannot be sanctioned as the property of any one culture at a static point in history. As Conor Friedersdorf explains in his counter article, “In Praise of Polyglot Culture-and Multicultural Belly Dancing” belly dance is a passion for women around the world, expanding personal and cultural awareness. It is in fact far more popular throughout Asia, South America, Europe, Russia, and elsewhere, than in the US. As one of only several Americans at a couple of major belly dance festivals in Cairo, I was a minority among the hundreds from these other regions.
As Jarrar points out, “belly dance” is a term invented by a famous American promoter of the late 19th century, who showcased an eroticized interpretation of Raqs Sharqi at the Chicago World’s Fair. He named it according to a direct translation of the French term “danse du ventre” – dance of the stomach, which is itself an ignorant reference reflecting Europe’s colonial rule of the Middle East and twisted interpretation of its culture. Initially, a Harvard anthropology professor was assigned to curate that section of the fair. So much history pivots on that turn of fate. The term belly dance is now used worldwide (including Egypt), hence for the sake of easy universal reference (gotta pick your battles) I’ll use the term for now. Back to the battle of cultural appropriation.
Is the violation of cultural appropriation one that only a “white” woman can commit? The African American belly dancers, Asian belly dancers, and Latina belly dancers are all exempt? Oh, but wait, we call Latino “white,” right? Checkmate. The more we inquire through a racial lens, the more people we offend. But let’s humor this silly argument a bit longer. Let us suppose that the only legitimate belly dancer is an Egyptian belly dancer. Does it matter if you’re among the Jewish or Greek Egyptians? Last I heard, these are labeled “white” too. Ay, here we go again!
Thankfully, art is colorblind and cannot be intertwined with such nonsense. Art also involves skill and mastery, with which one is not innately endowed simply because it's a tradition of their culture. I know West Africans that know nothing about drumming. I know Brazilians that know nothing about samba. Conversely, I know amazing hip hop artists in France, blues musicians in Germany, salsa dancers in Africa, and African dancers in Japan, an exciting line of thought that inspired Washington Post to respond with “What would Salon think of an article called, ‘Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven’?”
I was once contacted by an Arab girl for private instruction in preparation for a “bucket list” belly dance solo she had signed herself up to perform in a local festival. Hiring me to cover some basic technique and guide her on how to deliver a dynamic performance, she respected that belly dance is a skill and made no assumption that being Arab predisposed her with that skill. On the other hand, she changed several of my interpretations for various sections of Alf Leyla, based on her native sense of the music. She had that innate “feeling” I did not have. It was a mutually gratifying experience for us both. Egyptian dancers bring that intangible “feeling” to the dance that is often missing.
But a dedicated artist will study this element, not only with her head, but her heart and soul. A dedicated artist can learn to speak the language of that art without an accent, if that is her goal. Those who pursue their talents in an art form will find themselves studying its origins, often tied to a cultural heritage. It’s important to credit and celebrate those cultural roots, yet also important to respect the artistic diversity of practicing artists, some of whom may choose to reproduce the dance ethnologically as a medium for cultural education, while others may focus on experimenting with how it intersects with other art forms. Such creative applications can spin off new styles. You don’t have to like those styles, but if others do, such fusions eventually form traditions in their own right. The dynamically changing and evolving nature of art is what keeps it alive and magical.
Jarrar’s racist premise notwithstanding, I think she has actually done belly dance a huge favor by highlighting its origins as a practice mostly enjoyed among women and for women. Since being colonized and put in service of a patriarchal paradigm, much collateral damage has been done. When I perform in restaurants or other interactive settings, I focus on involvement with the women and girls in my audience. This is a standard practice among most of my colleagues in the profession as well. I practically want to scream every time an oblivious audience member (often a woman) assumes my purpose is to entertain men and directs me to one of them at her table. Shifting the perception of this dance back to a practice by and for women could heal all wounds of patriarchal co-optation. This shift has been underway throughout the past generation, but needs more emphasis when the general public is involved.
Jarrar takes issue with “white” belly dancers trying to look like a stereotypical Arab girl through makeup and hair. Countless times I have wished I could cut off my hair and go back to my pixie look. Countless times I have wished I could show up to a gig without having to bother with the tedium of makeup. Countless times I have wished I could show up in something other than my two-piece cabaret costume. Yes indeed, Egyptians dance in whatever they’re wearing, which is often a loose fitting robe called a galabaya. As I’ve told my students for years, this is a dance, not a costume, and no particular costume is required for you to enjoy it.
But makeup and costume are essential components for performance of any kind. The required makeup is basically stage makeup, not that different from a ballet dancer, flamenco dancer, or any dancer. Belly dance as a feminine dance, hence long hair, whether blonde, red, or brunette, is perceived as a standard representation of feminine (though I personally love short-haired belly dancers and may someday join them). Whenever there is an opportunity, such as a cultural event or show with multiple sets, I do wear a galabaya. But perhaps this puts me in even greater violation of Jarrar’s cultural appropriation.
Jarrar also takes issue with invented belly dancer names to sound more exotic, which are often contrived, translating into nothing in Arabic or something silly. It helps them go into their performance persona, I’m told. On the other hand, when I decided to become a professional, I chose to use my real name because I realized when dancing, I am myself more than at any other time. Both approaches have inspiration. I personally have found myself unable to relate to people who go to extremes to transform their look to another race in association with their chosen activity and community. But it’s not for me to judge. We all go through our phases and I’ve surely gone through mine. And we’d all probably be healthier human beings if we gave ourselves greater permission to explore different identities more often.
Jarrar has made me incredibly thankful to the many Arab and Egyptian families who have encouraged my passion over the years. Hiring me and celebrating what I do, they express delight that I’ve dedicated so much to learning something so meaningful to their tradition. Jarrar makes me thankful that I am surrounded by so much diversity, tolerance, and respect. So Randa Jarrar can’t stand me. There will always be haters.