TRADITIONS OF FAMILY AND CULTURE
Our history is important to all of us since we wouldn’t be where we are today without it. Most of us are fascinated or curious about our ancestry or our “roots”. Traditions of family or culture gets passed down through generations and can be fiercely sacred to the individuals who keep them. Many families or cultures have dance in their traditions. These traditional dances are usually seen at social gatherings for celebration such as weddings or life events, but not generally for a public performance. The belly dance (raqs sharqi or baladi in their country) has deep family traditions of social gatherings of woman dancing together and for each other – sisters, daughters, mothers, grandmothers – and without men present. Women from these traditional ethnic countries who perform publicly are frowned upon in their country and not regarded with any respect. These are the dancers that have caught the attention of us in the West and then sensationalized and sexualized in Hollywood. It is the dance that we think of here as Egyptian Cabaret.
The New vs. The Old
This subject is very personal to me since I am not a traditional dancer. I believe that knowledge of the history of my art form is important and I share as much as I know with my students and encourage them to learn more for themselves.
I hear many dancers say that they were attracted to the dance because of the exotic music and culture, but that wasn’t my first attraction. I just like dancing and moving my body. The dance felt right to me and I was happy to find something that I loved doing that worked my body and also satisfied my artistic side.
My first performance was a year after my first class. I danced to an old classic rock and roll tune. I did not relate to Middle Eastern music at all. Dancing to what we call ‘alternative’ music wasn’t unique then, but not as common as it is now. Once I learned how to play the finger cymbals (zils), I gained an appreciation for the ethnic music and have since found a lot of it I like.
Many dancers take stage names that are ethnic sounding and keep to traditional music. I took a ‘fantasy’ name and rarely dance to traditional music. I consider myself a modern American belly dancer and have never called myself a traditional Middle Eastern dancer.
This subject has been hotly discussed and debated on social media recently and the term appropriation came up. An article appeared a few years ago from a Middle Eastern woman who hates white belly dancers because of this. http://www.salon.com/2014/03/04/why_i_cant_stand_white_belly_dancers/. OK. I get it. I wouldn’t try to do a native American rain dance without feeling that I was being inappropriate since that is sacred to their culture and not mine. But where or when does art interpretation clearly cross the line? Music like the Blues has deep historical roots and musicians are proud to credit their inspiration for their new music from these old masters.
My style and dance are my own inspired and influenced from all of the many forms of dance that I’ve learned over the course of my life. I have been trained in ballet, modern, jazz, African and belly dance. I love seeing the dance infused with goth, fantasy and dub step. American Tribal Style is a Western creation of belly dance infused with East Indian and Flamenco styling. It’s beautiful and inspirational to watch. It’s a new way to dance this ancient art form.
The country belly dance comes from took it out of their private homes and put it on the stage for us to see and enjoy. The only time I get uncomfortable watching a belly dancer is if she is inappropriately dressed for family audiences or a strip tease artist starting out in a belly dance costume. Many times I have had to educate my community that we are NOT strippers. I do also get the cultural heritage of the dance and feel the dancer should be aware of the music, dance and costume if she is advertising herself as traditional or ethnic.
This may always be a hot topic with opinions on all sides. I don’t see that it is going to keep women (or men) of any race or color learning or enjoying this dance because it has become modernized and globalized and we all influence and inspire each other.
I welcome any questions or comments. I would love to hear from you. Thanks!