In my time attending “fusion” belly dance festivals, I’ve seen quite a few powerful, creative, and moving performances. Many of them have taken inspiration from modern and contemporary dance, touching on emotional themes and other issues. Others have been inspired by grand stage productions with larger-than-life props and costumes, and great overall dance skill… but sometimes I am left wondering, “Where’s the belly dance?” If these performances are being presented at fusion “belly dance” festivals, then I am left expecting presentations with more belly dance in them.
Asking “Where’s the belly dance?” is different from asking, “Is it belly dance?” That question has been asked over and over again about emerging stylizations within the belly dance genre, and it’s one that I’m not sure I can answer definitively for all of us. Belly dance is often (arguably) in the eye of the beholder. But here I ask a different question…
Asking “Where’s the belly dance?” prompts me, for the sake of this post, to define what I mean. To me, for this post, it isn’t necessarily the imitation of movements done by dancers “over there” or that certain indescribable Middle Eastern quality that so many master dancers bring to their art. No… I’m talking purely about movement. Specifically hip work. Vertical hip work (glutes, in my world), twists, pelvic locks (front and back), figure 8s (vertical and horizontal), interior hip circles, interior hip squares, and all the other wonderful permutations thereof. Belly dance is partially defined and distinguished from other dance forms by the sophistication by which we are able to isolate the pelvis and articulate the muscles around it as we travel around the stage, often separating these movements from the rest of our bodies.
Sometimes when I watch a performance, I do see hip work, but most of the time it is performed while the performer is stationary. Other times, I’ll see articulations in the upper body, such as torso undulations and rib cage isolations, without much more hip work throughout the performance than a stiff shimmy or a “hip drop”.
A few “shimmies” there, a “hip drop” there, and an undulation over there do not a belly dance performance make. It’s not even fusion. Fusion would be taking the footwork of, say, a modern or a jazz routine, and putting the hip work on top of it. Or, taking the upper body articulations and arms of another ethnic dance form and integrating in the distinct hip articulations of belly dance into those movements. And yes, such endeavors are difficult.
This phenomenon of missing hip work is not new… Recently a video of the famous model Juliana, who graced the covers of George Abdo’s classic 1960s belly dance recordings, surfaced, and she strutted around the stage beautifully, posing with gorgeous body angles, and looking fabulous, and even playing finger cymbals… with barely a hip movement to be found. From her photos, she looks like the quintessential belly dancer, with her chain maille costumes and her hourglass figure, but after watching her dance, I found little actual belly dance. What a shame.
Today, “fusion” presentations continue to suffer from a deficiency in hip work. But hip work is the great defining element of our dance. Yes, other dance forms use pelvic articulations, but not with the same degree of definition that we do. Why abandon that very element that sets us apart from other dance traditions?
Here’s where the sticky issue lies: I’m not sure why the hip work is missing from so many otherwise accomplished “fusion” presentations. It might be that people want to experiment with new movement vocabulary, or maybe it’s that more “traditional” hip movements within steps (such as, say, “Basic Egyptian” or “3/4 Shimmy”) doesn’t fit their vision for a contemporary choreography. If a dancer is worried that putting hip work on their dance might be viewed as too “traditional” or “cabaret”, then maybe belly dance isn’t the genre in which she/he should be participating.
Or it might be that they just don’t have the skill or the training to put hip work on their contemporary traveling movements. And why work to do so when you can present a choreography with a few hip drops and undulations and still receive a standing ovation? Because it’s hard. It’s damn hard. I’ve been training for thirteen years, and I still struggle with putting hip work on top of foot patterns. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop struggling.
What I would love to see is the fusion community of dancers take this dance to the next level by integrating more belly dance movements into their choreographies. It’s work, and it’s challenging, and it takes dedication and time. And the resources are out there. With the advent of online classes and touring workshop instructors, the training is easier to find and use than any time in the history of this dance. It’s just up to us to take it.