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.