How is your Spring going? It snowed yesterday here in ChiBeria. Not very Spring-like, is it?!
Let’s get onto the challenge for this last full week of March!
There’s been a lot going around lately about cultural appropriation, and whether or not is is okay for white (American/Western) women to belly dance. A lot has already been said, and there are others who have mirrored my opinions on it, so I am not going to go on about that here. Let’s just say that people do have the right to be angry over things that offend them. But I also believe that insulting people is the wrong way to handle that anger. There is no need to increase the wrong by being insulting, racist, or by thin-shaming. When you do this, you only alienate the object of your anger and completely invalidate your points (in their view). People will get defensive and then never listen to the completely valid points you do have. And I mean this about BOTH SIDES of the argument.
As belly dancers, and participants in a culture that is not our own, we are required to be respectful and knowledgeable about that culture. It is NOT up to others to educate you. It is up to you, and you alone.
It is unfortunate that my first teacher never taught me anything about any of the cultures she was borrowing from. When I “came out” onto the rest of the belly dance scene, I was way behind. I didn’t know any of the famous dancers of the Golden Age, didn’t know any of the “must know” songs or what they meant, and I certainly did not know the true roots of this dance. I was horrified at my lack of knowledge, and immediately began trying to find out everything I could.
This week, your challenge is to do the same. If you are unfamiliar with the history of belly dance, please use this week to educate yourself. Look up articles online. Talk to your teacher (maybe request a special class just on history?). If you don’t know anything about cultural appropriation, here is a good start (though it is not specifically about belly dance, and I find myself disagreeing with one point. Please see below for that point).
Use this week to go deeper into the meaning of your dance. Why do we wear bedlahs (what is a bedlah?!) or some dancers dance in heels and others don’t? Where did Tribal Fusion come from? Who, in your opinion, is the most important belly dancer of all time, or just of the modern age? What country (or countries) does your dance come from and why? What are the differences between the different styles of traditional belly dance?
All these questions are good starting points as a way to educate yourself about your dance. Even if you perform Tribal Fusion, you should know where the roots of your dance come from, and why you are using them.
If we join in the conversation about cultural appropriation and belly dance respectfully and knowledgeably, and help to politely and respectfully educate others, then maybe we can cut down on the number of hateful articles about belly dance, white belly dancers, and “this is not belly dance.”
Please keep in mind, too, that these challenges are only a week. A week is not enough time to fully educate yourself on any aspect of belly dance. The challenges are meant to be just that. A challenge. Can you do this in a week? Can you build a practice, one week at a time? They are meant to get you used to practicing (or researching) every day. So let’s do it! Every single day!
Taking the challenge? Let everyone else know! Tweet it!
Here’s my comment about the cultural appropriation article I linked. It is true that when cultural appropriation is pointed out that it is not meant to be personal. However, there have been too many times where I have seen that it has gotten personal. That is not okay. It is okay to say, “It’s wrong when [this dominant culture] appropriates [this other culture] by wearing [this object from the other culture].” That is a statement of fact. However, it is NOT okay to say, “These ugly, stupid, evil, insensitive [racial group], they have no idea what harm they are personally causing me because they are [wearing this object from my culture] or [doing this activity from my culture.]” Even if it is true (which it might be), insulting an entire racial or ethnic group is not helpful. When people do this, they come off as whiny victims who are petty and overly sensitive. I’m not saying that they are, but that is how they appear to others. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to point out when others are harming you or your culture. It is okay to ask people to stop. It is not okay to insult. You are shooting yourself in the foot if the first thing you do is insult an entire group of people (“sins of our enemies,” and all that, you know…)
I have, previously, been accused of derailing arguments by calling for rational discussion of controversial subjects. Fine. But unless and until we can all peaceably sit down and talk about things rationally, without insults, yelling, or the constant need to blame others or be victims, then nothing will change. Yes, anger is what makes things change by rattling cages and shocking people. But anger can be used without causing harm to others, and that is what I am calling for. When has insulting someone EVER changed their mind? Anyone? Examples?
[Edit:] changed a few words for clarity in my point that were not caught in the initial editing.
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Tribal Fest 2012 is now over, and the videos are rolling in. So, apparently, are the negative comments. I’ve tried to keep myself out of it as much as possible, because 1) I don’t have the time, and 2) it’s infuriating and I don’t need my head to explode.
Why is there such a problem with tribal fusion belly dance? Why do so many dancers either hate it or love it?
I’ve blogged about this before and seen some snarky comments about “oh, I’m an *artist* so I can do what I want” blah, blah, blah. This is a really negative and childish attitude to take, and doesn’t help the already not-so-great image of belly dance. Yes, ALL dancers are artists, and we can do whatever we want, within reason. If I want to “I’ll wrap my small intestines ’round my neck/And set fire to myself on stage” because I “perform this way.*” Dance is an art, and art is about creativity. We aren’t going to stop dancing just because a few people can’t expand their horizons and appreciate the art, skill, and talent that goes into tribal fusion, even if they don’t particularly care for it.
I’m not going to retread my entire previous blog post, because you can just go read that. But I will say this, and put it in bullets to make it clearer:
- Belly Dance is already a fusion art. Even “traditional” dance has movements from different cultures and art forms. Modern belly dance wasn’t conceived of, fully formed, in a vacuum. If you don’t believe me, watch this video and then ask yourself if this is how YOU belly dance (and gee…that certainly looks like an ommi to me…) For comparison, here is a modern Egyptian belly dancer. Don’t much look the same, do they?
- “Art isn’t safe” (a quote I heard from Rob Zombie). If it makes you angry, I’ve done my job. Art–including dancing–speaks to our emotions, and it doesn’t always have to be the happy, safe, glittery kind of emotions. I’ve seen belly dance so beautiful, I’ve cried. I’ve seen belly dance so powerful I was riveted to my seat and wouldn’t have noticed if I had started drooling. Fusion dancers: when some narrow-minded person tells you that what you are doing isn’t belly dance, just keep the thought, “They felt something, so I did my job,” in mind. At least they are watching your videos and commenting on them.
- If you don’t like it, DON’T WATCH IT. And don’t be a jerk and make negative comments. It devalues all of us. At least respect the skill and the time that went into learning and perfecting the movements, picking out the music, doing the choreography (yes, fusion dancers often choreograph), rehearsing, pulling together the costuming, putting on the makeup, getting over the stage fright, and opening our hearts and souls to the audience. For many of us (introverts), sharing our art is giving you a peek into our souls. Don’t devalue that by commenting, “That isn’t belly dance! I hate fusion.”
I’m going to go take some deep breaths now to calm down. In the meantime, don’t forget to go read my full blog on this subject.
*Lyrics from Weird Al’s “Perform This Way”
Let’s talk about fusion belly dance. To some in the belly dance community, “fusion” is a dirty word, met with eye-rolling disdain. Many claim that fusion dancers only call themselves fusion because they aren’t good enough to do any other form of “real” belly dance. Or they are looked on as invaders from other dance styles who throw in a couple of hip shakes and call themselves belly dancers. Or they are snidely called “artists” (again with the eye-rolling) because these dancers want to take belly dance in a non-traditional direction.
I’m a little biased, as I am a fusion dancer, but these responses are pretty disrespectful to those of us who work hard at our craft, spend vast amounts of money and time on classes, costuming, and performances, and love fusion with as much passion as any “traditional” dancer and her art. Yes, there will be dancers who really aren’t that great, or dancers who put on a purple hip scarf and black makeup and sell themselves as professional fusion belly dancers, but that’s true of all art forms.
I am also a “traditional” belly dancer, in that I dance Egyptian and Lebanese styles. While I know I’m not the only dancer that sits on the dual performer fence, I am one of the few that I know of that equally love both styles. Traditional belly dance changed my life. Fusion belly dance changed my life. Before I knew what fusion (specifically gothic belly dance) was, I enjoyed belly dance and had fun with it, but I had never thought about it being more than just an interesting (and slightly weird) hobby and a way to lose weight without going to the gym. But once I found fusion, I knew that was what I needed to be doing. Fusion belly dance is why I am where I am now. But I am always called back to the grace and elegance (and the sparklies) of the more traditional forms of belly dance.
So why I am writing this blog?
It’s time to educate fellow dancers about fusion. I know I won’t convince everyone of the value of fusion, but please, do take some time to read what I have to say about art and fusion and belly dance.
Belly dance is a folkloric dance with deep roots in many of the countries in the Middle East and western Asia. Therefore, it has a long history—and a murky one—but one that comes from many places. Belly dance as we know it is already a fusion, a distillation of these folkloric dances into what we know today. Do you really think Egyptian dancers were wearing sequined bedlahs way back when? Ballet was later incorporated into more modern belly dance, so most belly dancers today are already fusion dancers. I might be wrong, but I don’t think ballet is traditionally Egyptian.
It gives you something to think about, doesn’t it?
Since belly dance is a traditional dance and a part of several cultures, it deserves respect and preservation. There should always be dancers that peer into the past and try to get the roots of the dance. There should always be dancers willing to travel to Egypt and Lebanon (and elsewhere) to study with the “real deal” in order to preserve and promote traditional belly dancing.
Yet belly dance, like all dance forms, is an art. What is art? According to one dictionary, it is: 1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form, and 2. works produced by such skill and imagination. There’s that pesky word . . . “creative.” And another pesky word . . . “imagination.”
I’m not saying that traditional belly dance is not creative or imaginative. But creativity and imagination don’t like limitations and will often burst forth violently when held too much in check.
That is what happened to me. As I mentioned before, I loved belly dance in its more traditional forms. But seeing fusion for the first time lit my brain on fire. After first watching Ariellah and Asharah dance, I spent one sleepless night planning, scheming, and imagining all the wonderful things I could do with an art form I loved but without boundaries, without fetters, without limits. I could barely contain the rush of creativity that burst forth from me as I thought about what belly dance could do for me, and what I could do with it.
Belly dance is an art. And art should never, ever be limited. Art should push boundaries, crash through walls of culture and class, and make people angry, sad, happy, horrified, thoughtful . . . It should unite us as humans, the only animal on this planet that creates art, and it should be considered precious. Art is what makes us well rounded human beings. It shows us our sensitive sides or our darker sides. It makes us uncomfortable while at the same time bringing us home and bringing forth our inner light. How awesome is it that we can communicate the deepest feelings we have without ever saying a single word?
Do you really want to limit something so beautiful and so precious as creativity? As children, our creativity is crushed under the heavy weight of school, responsibility, and growing up. We let our creativity die—or sometimes we kill it—in order to sanely work in sterile environments like cubicle farms or in jobs we detest. Only a few, who aren’t dissuaded by constant comments like, “When are you going to get a real job?” from parents maintain that creative spark and develop it to become the painters, dancers, and other artists we know.
I’m not willing to kill my creativity in order to limit myself to just one form of dance. And now I can almost hear those eye rolling in their sockets. “Oh, she’s just another ‘artist,’” you say sarcastically. Yep, that I am. I am an artist, and I will continue to belly dance to music you hate or to fuse belly dance and other dance styles in order to make you angry or uncomfortable. Or maybe it will make you happy or perhaps even inspire you. If I’ve made you feel anything, I’ve done my job.
Fusion belly dance is here to stay. Belly dance as an art form is going to grow and mutate and break its limitations whether you like it or not. Even traditional belly dance has grown and changed. We don’t live in a vacuum, and even traditional-style belly dancers will take movements they like from other dance forms, and, suddenly, everyone is doing it, not realizing that it really isn’t a belly dance move. Fusion dancers are just more open about it when “stealing” movements and styles from other dance forms.
This is not to say that we should completely discard the traditional. Tradition always has its place, and it should be honored because of it. But stay too hide-bound, and you stifle the very creativity and inspiration that developed the art form in the first place. Let art grow, but respectfully and in full awareness of the traditional.
I hope this at least makes you stop and think before you snort and wave dismissively at the next fusion performer you see (yes, I have seen this happen during a belly dance show). She has every right to take belly dance in her direction, just as you have the right to keep the traditional alive and well. If you don’t like it, then at least be respectful enough of those around you to let them watch an artist perform.