I Am a Belly Dancer. No Buts.

I came across an interesting post by my friend Asharah entitled, “I am a bellydancer, but…”. It is is a thought-provoking piece that ends with some really excellent music exercises for gaining a familiarity with Middle Eastern music that I am dying to try. I was especially interested in it considering the fact that my last post was about selecting music for choreography.

My previous blog post does not relate exactly to Asharah’s, however, because I do NOT fall into the camp she is describing — a person who hates Middle-Eastern music. As I state in my blog post, I am an artist that finds myself more commonly moved by other forms of music —  “I have seen beautiful belly dance pieces to live music and I find some songs absolutely gorgeous, but rarely do I feel the urge to get up and dance to it.”

As I was reading, I was struck by this passage:

“If we are to continue to call ourselves ‘belly dancers’ we must absolutely know how to perform to Middle Eastern music, and… we must learn to love at least some of the music from that region of the world.  Chances are that we won’t love all of it, and that’s fine!”

Love and appreciation are two different words for a reason. I hear many Middle Eastern songs I don’t love, but I certainly can appreciate and respect the skill, artistry, and beauty involved in the process the same way I can appreciate the skills of a talented oboe player but personally love the sound of the oboe (I’m sorry, oboe players… it’s not you, it’s me…).

I don’t think a person should — or can — force themselves to feel an emotion that is not present. However, it is possible develop a newfound love of something through study and appreciation — something I myself have experienced. I am of the opinion that we should have knowledge, respect, and appreciation for Middle Eastern music — along with an appreciation of the people, places, language, and culture that birthed our dance.  You would be hard-pressed to find any post in my blog that would suggest the contrary. As a result, I have studied with cabaret and tribal teachers, I have danced debkes, saidis, and drum solos, and I was at one point Level II certified in the Suhaila format. But beyond that, I have taken doumbek classes, I have read countless books on the origins of our dance, I have watched videos, and I have watched documentaries. My knowledge is not as extensive as I would like it to be at the current moment — and I am starting to get comfortable with the fact that the more I learn the more I know I have yet to learn —  but I take solace in the fact that I have a lifetime to continue learning the intricacies of the art and culture of the Middle East.

“Belly dance is inherently Middle Eastern.  Whether it’s Turkish oryantal, Egyptian folkloric, Lebanese-style cabaret, Moroccan Shikhat: It’s all Middle Eastern.  One might argue that belly dance as a genre is at a developmental crossroads, with Westernized belly dance being one branch of its evolution and Middle Eastern belly dance being the other branch.  I don’t think that we’re quite to that point, nor do I think that this argument (or any argument) is an excuse that allows for ignorance or dismissal of the historical and regional roots of this dance.

Belly dance definitely originated from the Middle East. Knowing where your art comes from is important. You can’t just ignore half of what created this art form and go onto the parts you like. I don’t think anyone would argue that.

But there is a reason I describe myself as a “belly dancer” and not a “Middle Eastern dancer” — the term “belly dance” has evolved to mean something much larger than JUST the field of Middle Eastern dance and culture, and I believe this element is ABSOLUTELY an important factor in this discussion. We all know how countries all over the world are taking the same movement vocabulary and putting their own unique stamp on it, the United States being one of the biggest. Attending dance classes in Spain and Japan has been an incredible look into the countless ways belly dance is being practiced all over the world.

And I embrace this evolution in this art form the same way I embrace the history and traditions it originated from. Both are equally important and equally present to me and in the genre as a whole. As a result, I feel that equating the choice of non-traditional music with ignorance is a bit heavy-handed.

“But I wonder, why would you self-identify as a belly dancer if you don’t like dancing to Middle Eastern music?  It’s one thing to experiment with non-Middle Eastern music.  It’s another to eschew it completely from your performance repertoire or to say that you dislike all of it.  If you’re not dancing to Middle Eastern music, I really don’t think you can call yourself a belly dancer.  There.  I said it.”

Which is a fine opinion, except I disagree.

Labeling has become such a tired and laborious discussion in the belly dance community, and I don’t care to open that old can of worms wide open.  But if I were to lift the lid and peek in:

— I feel that the person that is most likely to have the best opinion on what it is, exactly, that they do is… the artist herself. As a result, I am hesitant to assign the label of what “is” and “is not” belly dance to other dancers. Furthermore, I feel it is ultimately an unproductive and, quite frankly, a divisive practice. Where would the pioneers of Tribal Fusion belly dance be if they listened to the (probably countless) people who told them that Tribal was “not belly dance?”

Bah. I’m much more interested in whether or not a person creates meaningful art — if they present original ideas through careful, impressive execution of their technique and demonstrate a devotion to their training and heritage.

— No matter how hard you try to present exactly what styles and labels you represent to an audience, there will always be uneducated people in the audience that will walk away uneducated. That’s not to say we should all just say “screw it!” and misrepresent ourselves. My humble opinion is that it is more important to connect with an audience through meaningful artistic expression than represent a label perfectly. (Clearly this is not applicable if you are hired to represent a particular label or culture).

— … But if I HAD to go down the label road… honestly, I feel that if my dance to a Nine Inch Nails song incorporates the same undulations, circles, snake arms, and shimmies as a performer dancing to a Middle Eastern song — if I am drawing from the same generally accepted belly dance movement vocabulary in my fusion — then I feel completely comfortable labeling myself as a belly dance fusion dancer.

And I am DEFINITELY a fusion dancer, no if, ands, or buts about it. But the movements that resonate with me — the art I have pursued above all others — is belly dance.

But that being said, I am glad that Asharah was brave enough to share her opinion, because it fulfilled the aims that all good art should — she made me think and her post ellicited an emotional reaction from me.

I realized that not everyone defines belly dance by the same terms I do, and I realized… wow, I really no longer care if the world at large views me as a belly dancer, or a modern dancer, or even as an artist. All that matters is that I continue to dance, continue to pursue the creation of art, and yes, I’m going to feel comfortable labeling myself as a belly dancer for as long as I continue to pull mainly from the core movements from the belly dance discipline.

I hope that you can see that when I dance —  when I choose to pull from such a beautiful art form with such a rich history and culture that I appreciate and respect greatly, even if my heart pulls me away from the music of its origins and more into music that helps me express my message as an artist — I am doing my best to honor those who paved the road before me and allowed me to get to this point with belly dance.

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7 responses to “I Am a Belly Dancer. No Buts.

  1. Wow, thank you for baring your heart for all to see. A long time ago, I was a part of a project you put together for “Eat, Pray, Love”. While in a different vein, you have expressed the emotions of a professional performer in real and gritty fashion, which I TRULY appreciate.

    I also read Asharah’s blog pertaining to the music, and felt similar to you. I can see her logic and know my ignorance towards true middle eastern music is a short coming. After reading your blog, it makes me draw a comparison to an audio tape I’m studying: “Towards the Kinship of Religion” by the Dali Lama. He explains how an inter-religious framework is only possible when the separate religions air out the differences and not try to create a solitary vision of religion. I have often heard myself and other dancers say, “Dance is my religion”. While Asharah may lean towards a foundation of “Islam” based music, I am personally moved by more of an occult or “shaman/wiccan” type music.

    If we apply the teachings of the Dali Lama, it then becomes transparent that you ARE indeed a belly dancer, perhaps not one fused with middle eastern intention, but an excellent one none the less. I’ve seen you dance everything from Portishead, to drum solos, to the new Latin path you are following. There are people in the world, myself included, who crave the creative energy you pour out…keep shining!

  2. Hey lady… I owe you a private response as well, but I just haven’t had the time, yet.

    I wanted to say that I think you are an inspiring and beautiful dancer. You’re one of the few performers who’s made me cry. For reals. While I would LOVE for you to find a few Middle Eastern pieces to which to perform, I respect your decision not to do so. It might be a point on which we just disagree.

    I do encourage all belly dancers to learn about different kinds of Middle Eastern music, especially fusion dancers. This is a Middle Eastern dance form, and I don’t think there’s any way around that. It came from the Middle East and is still performed in the Middle East. That doesn’t mean that we, as Americans, have to dance the way they do in the Middle East. We just can’t hear the music the way they do. Most of us weren’t raised with it, and we were introduced to Middle Eastern music way later in life. We’re just going to hear the music differently than dancers from “over there”. But I do encourage all belly dancers to try their hand at dancing to music from the Middle East, even if it’s not all the time. Gods know that I don’t dance to ME music all the time! 😀

    • Agreed. I took what you said to heart and I have followed the comments to your original post with much interest… the line, “If you never do anything you don’t like, you never grow as an artist” hit me over the head and made me sit up.

      Up until this point I have not actively pursued selecting Middle Eastern music for solos, and I think that at some point in my little choreography experiment I am going to challenge myself to do so.

      You know I love you, girl, and I love your writing. Just wanted to make it clear that I am not a ME hater!

  3. This post really resonated with me. I’ve had the same train of thought with regards to the differences between the terms “belly dance” and “middle eastern dance”, and I can tell from what you’ve written before and now here that we have a similar taste in music and movement and probably not such a different dance background to boot.

    I listen to middle eastern music both because I love it and because it’s important to me personally that I understand it. I don’t exclude it on the basis that it’s middle eastern, but I don’t narrow myself to that type of music because it “goes” with belly dance.

    Then again, of late I’ve just been calling myself a “dancer”. There’s really no debating that what I’m doing is dancing, but everything else seems to lead to an argument. So I’m a “dancer”.

    • I have really been thinking that maybe I should just save myself the trouble and go ahead and describe myself that way as well. A lot of my movement is belly dance, but a lot is pulled from other disciplines too…

      Thanks for the input.

      • I know it’s really cynical, but I just started to feel like calling myself anything but a regular old dancer was just an invitation for people to disagree with me for all kinds of different reasons.

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