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.