Dance is a world-wide art form using the human body. It is a constantly evolving form of expression composed of countless regional differences and subtleties that reflect our many cultural identities.
Even though I am not an indigenous Middle Easterner, belly dance is my passion. I have performed numerous kinds of dance from ballet to square dance. But the dance form that touches my heart and soul most is belly dance. It simply calls to the woman inside me. Dancing has helped me not be scared of what others think of me. It has taught me to not constantly second-guess myself. When I discovered belly dance, it was like finding a missing part of me! Dancing and performing felt like I had come home to myself. The expressive freedom of belly dance is my freedom.
Now I find that what I do is tantamount to cultural appropriation according to this article by Randa Jarrar. By her logic, I should not take up Indian batik, learn to make Origami, or indulge myself in any activity that might be considered part of someone else's cultural domain. That is her opinion.
Belly dance is my life's work. I travel to the Middle East to study it. I currently teach at the belly dance school I started in 2004 Tallahassee, Florida. There are no cultural or ethnic restrictions to joining and having a great time. This work is important to me. It is bigger than myself, and connects me to others. Its practice therapeutically nourishes my body's need for movement.
In researching the history of many dance forms, I have come to my own conclusions. In my opinion, dance is something that is not claimed by one culture but by all. No one owns the patent. How I choose to express myself through dance is to do what truly feels comfortable to me. I don't feel anyone should be discouraged from belly dancing if they want to do so.
I prefer to use the terms "emulation", "crossover", and "fusion" to describe the fluidity of this medium, and appreciate the natural copying that occurs when one group of people admires what another culture has to offer. Honestly, women everywhere have always imitated other women and tried to outdo them.
Historical records of belly dance show adaptation and change within the form over the millennia. Some forms are older than the Arab occupation of the Middle East. We do not know what dance moves possibly brought in by the Hyksos, Assyrians, Phoenicians, and the Macedonians that may have been assimilated over time into the Egyptian culture. How can they be measured? And who can say that Greek or Roman dance did not also influence the Egyptians to change the form? Egyptian culture certainly took Rome by storm. To me, even the old Raks Sharqi movies of the 1950s show the influences of ballet on modern Egyptian dance due to the influences of Mahmoud Reda.
Another example is the revered wedding dance, performed with Shamadan (a candelabra) on top of the head. According to Dr. Professor Hassan Khalil of International Saray of Oriental Culture in Cairo, Egypt, (ISOC) this dance started with the serving women of the Mamaluks from the Ottoman Empire who carried candles to illuminate the food they were serving on their platters. Over time, they learned to balance their candles on the head to leave the hands free for serving. This led to symbolically lighting the way in a wedding procession.
Art of any kind does not spring forth from a vacuum. This is truly the beauty of creativity! New is created from old every day. Old becomes fashionably new again and the lines become blurred. So how do we balance the adaptability and the creativity that humans do so naturally with people’s need to preserve their cultural identity?
The appeal of dance and music will always speak in an elemental way to people. The advent of TV and the internet means that protected islands of culture can no longer exist independently from each another. Certainly the loss of indigenous variety and identity is a worthy concern, but attacking belly dancing's greatest admirers seems counterproductive. How can Jarrar not want to share all the good things that belly dancing bring to other people? The Western form does not ridicule the other, but clearly harkens back to it. No disrespect was ever intended to any culture. Learn the history and give credit to those who came before you, the people whose creativity you are building upon. For those of you who dance think of this each time you perform a new choreography to any piece of music, while dancing this dance which speaks so clearly to you.
As long as dancers can use their imagination to create something new from something old, we will always be excited about form known as belly dance!
Some links for further reading:
This video is also interesting because it shows what life is like for Middle Eastern women dancing in Cairo, Egypt.