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.