Further reading on race, gender, and belly dance.

Several people have been asking me about further reading materials in response to Randa Jarrar’s article on white belly dancers.  You can find some of these through Google Scholar (scholar.google.com).  Others you will have to find at your library or through Inter-Library Loan.  This is by no means a complete list, and it is belly dance- and Middle East-specific.  For reading about broader race and privilege issues, I’m afraid I am of little help.

That said, here are a few to get you started:

Ahmed, Leila. “Western Ethnocentrism and the Perception of the Harem.” Feminist Studies 8:3 (1982): 521-534.

Bullock, Katherine. “Challenging Media Representations of the Veil: Contemporary Muslim Women’s Re-Veiling Movement.” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 17:3 (2000): 22-53.

Dox, Donnalee. “Dancing around Orientalism.” TDR/The Drama Review 50:4 (2006): 52-71.

Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

Jarmakani, Amira. “Belly Dancing for Liberation.” In Arabs in the Americas: Interdisciplinary Essays on the Arab Diaspora, ed. Darcy Zabel, 145-168.  New York: Peter Land Press, 2006.

——— Imagining Arab Womanhood: The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in the US. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Karayanni, Stavros Stavrou. Dancing Fear & Desire: Race, Sexuality, & Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2004.

Maira, Sunaina.  “Belly Dancing: Arab-Face, Orientalist Feminism, and U.S. Empire.” American Quarterly 60:2 (2008) 317-345.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Shaheen, Jack. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing Group, 2001.

Shay, Anthony and Barbara Sellers-Young. “Belly Dance: Orientalism: Exoticism: Self-Exoticism.” Dance Research Journal 35:1 (2003): 13-37.

Stone, Rebecca. “Reverse Imagery: Middle Eastern Themes in Hollywood.” In Images of Enchantment: Visual and Performing Arts of the Middle East. Edited by Sherifa Zuhur, 247-263. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998.

Van Nieuwkerk, Karin. A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Wilkinson, Linda (Latifa). “The Harem: Contrasting Orientalist and Feminist Views.” Habibi 19:1 (2002). Accessed December 26, 2013. http://thebestofhabibi.com/vol-19-no-1-feb-2002/the-harem/

 

I’m a white woman, and I belly dance.

…I mean, if you don’t count my mother’s side of the family (with the surname Lopez and of Sephardic Jewish heritage). But, that’s beside the point.  Or is it?

On March 4th, Salon.com featured an opinion piece by Arab-American author Randa Jarrar as a piece in a series of articles written by women of color, titled “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.”  I’m not sure if that’s her original title for the piece, or if Salon.com changed it to the current click-bait that is now is.  Either way, it has stirred up some constructive conversation as well as some unsavory responses.

Having read nearly every article on cultural appropriation and belly dance out there that I can get my hands on (seriously), this subject is nothing new to me.  It is, as I’m finding out now, new for many dancers.  So, the article in question has, in a way, done some good in generating useful discussion.  However, it fails on so many levels. It calls out an entire race and gender for partaking in a specific activity; the author even asks women of northern European descent (or, at least, those who look as though they are) to not belly dance at all and find another hobby/career/activity.

As a “white belly dancer” I’ve heard/read the premise of Ms. Jarrar’s article before:  that white belly dancers are playing at “Arab Face” and engaging in cultural appropriation. Maira Sunaina already wrote that article, and frankly, it was poorly-researched.  (Sunaina did not talk to the top instructors in our field, and clearly researched her work with a hefty dose of cherry-picking and confirmation bias.)  Jarrar’s does no better, but at least it is framed as an opinion piece. Some of the faults of Jarrar’s article include: she fails to mention that belly dance is not exclusively Arab, it is declining in its home countries, dancers are looked upon as prostitutes; she also does not actually quote any dancers themselves nor does she mention that she actually spoke with preeminent instructors in our community.  She writes them off completely as either perpetrators of cultural appropriation or as engaging in self-exploitation.  (Tell that to Suhaila Salimpour: an Iranian-Sicilian woman who has been performing belly dance since she was 2, teaching since she was 9, performed in the Middle East for several years, and whose mission is, first and foremost, education.)

Ultimately, though, we cannot deny Jarrar her experience or her opinions, and her observations are worth hearing and considering. To deny her her firmly held convictions is to commit the cultural crime of which she already accuses us: denying an Arab woman of her own experience.  I’m sure that being an Arab-American in a post-9/11 United States has been incredibly difficult, in fact, I KNOW it has.  (Yes, I remember my friends receiving death threats that autumn for the mere fact that they were Arab and/or Muslim.  It was and still is heartbreaking.)  I’m willing to bet that Ms. Jarrar has faced her share of bigotry and racism against Arabs and Muslims (not the same thing, although many people think they are).  She is angry that something she feels is part of her culture is being appropriated by the same race as the political leaders who have wreaked havoc on her familial homeland for more than 100 years. I get that. I’d be angry, too.

I do admit that as a woman who presents as white and has devoted much of her life studying the language, culture, history, and politics of the Middle East, I do take some personal offense. I came to belly dance (raqs sharqi, raqs baladi, danse orientale, gobek dansi, etc.) through my study of the Middle East, not the other way around, as many dancers do. Unfortunately, many of my fellow practitioners do commit kinds of cultural appropriation that the author mentions here. It’s true. I’m not denying that these things happen. Some of us are much more educated in our approach to the dance than others, and, yes, using belly dance as a vehicle for Orientalist fantasy is harmful and rife with ignorance.

But, let’s for a moment, change the dance and the ethnicity, using some other imperialist powers from history.

“Why I can’t stand Chinese hip hop dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand Turkish salsa dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand Mongolian blues singers.”

“Why I can’t stand Russian ballet dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand French Afro-Caribbean dancers.”

“Why I can’t stand Japanese belly dancers.”

Each of the groups mention here were imperialist powers. Each of the arts mentioned here have been appropriated by the people of the imperialist powers in question. Do the above titles sound any more or less ridiculous than the title of this article? And if they do, why?

What this article wants to be is about imperialism and power. It wants to be an article about the domination of the “West” over the Middle East. It wants to take a jab at the exploitation of Western powers (read: British, French, and American) of the Middle East and its people. It wants to be an article about Orientalism. It wants to be about white privilege in the United States.  All of these topics are valid and should be discussed; and, in fact, they are being discussed in academic discourse on belly dance every day. But, as a means for bridging gaps of understanding between the Arab world and “white people,” it fails. It fails because of its own racism, sweeping generalizations, and bigotry. Change the sectarian group name and it still turns into “Why I can’t stand ___ group for doing ____ thing.”

Hating on a group is not a productive way for erasing racism.

(Yes, that means let’s stop hating on white people as a group—rather, those of northern European descent, for are Greeks, Sicilians, and people of Balkan descent “white” in the context of this article?  What about Jews?—for doing anything that isn’t also of northern European origin.  Just as a Arab woman has no choice but to be an Arab woman, a “white” woman has no choice either.  We can however, make educated choices about how we regard elements of other peoples’ cultures.)

To the author: You could have used this article as a means for productive education and discourse. You could have actually quoted some of the preeminent scholars of this discourse (let’s start with Edward Said) or even members of your own community.  But you instead relied on a click-bait title (and, as the subject is within my field of study, I clicked). I hope that you are able to take your personal experience and work with, say, a local educational institution or non-profit, or maybe you should reach out to your local belly dance instructors and offer to give a special class to their students rather than just writing yet ANOTHER article about how white people oppress brown people.  Yes, imperialism, racism, and cultural appropriation have all happened and continue to happen and cause great harm.  Let’s help it NOT happen by fostering exchange and education rather than anger and bigotry.

 

Musings from a former figure skater.

On the ice at Art of the Belly in Maryland.  Photo by Triformis.

On the ice at Art of the Belly in Maryland. Photo by Triformis.

Many of you know that I was a competitive figure skater when I was young.  As I watch the Olympics this year, I have been realizing how many aspects of performance I learned from skating that I have applied to belly dance.  A great performance is a great performance, regardless of the discipline.  I encourage all of my readers to seek out videos of great skating.  From this year, I suggest Jason Brown’s long program from the 2014 Nationals competition, and Gracie Gold’s long program from the new team event at Sochi, and Davis and White’s free dance from the team competition at Sochi.

Here are quite a few things I’ve learned from skating:

Practice.

  • Have a coach.  Whether or not you have to train long distance, Skype, or travel to study with your coach, have at least one person whom you are proud to call your mentor.
  • Study peripheral and related disciplines.  Figure skaters work with many different instructors and do a lot of off-ice training to perfect their on-ice work.  (I took ballet and ballroom dance when I was skating.)
  • Always work on your technique, and push to master harder and harder movements.  Once I had consistently landed all of my double jumps, my coach had me working on my Double Axel and Triple Salchow.  There is no ceiling.
  • Fight for those hard movements as you practice. Give it your all.
  • A consistent practice is the key to success.  My skating practice schedule was so set for YEARS that I still remember when and what times I had practice… 15 years after I stopped skating.  I also skated 15+ hours a week, five days a week, on top of being an Advanced Placement track student, a Girl Scout, and working to get into Ivy League universities.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
  • Train alongside people better than you.  I regularly shared ice with former Olympians like Debi Thomas and Rudy Galindo. It only made me want to work harder.
  • There will always be someone younger, prettier, and better (a subjective term) than you.  Don’t let that bother you. You are you, and that’s always enough… if you keep working.
  • Visualization will get you far.  Imagine yourself doing your choreographies, nailing every hard movement, and truly feeling your music.
  • Take good care of your equipment. This includes costumes.
  • You will have good days and bad days.  There were some days when I just couldn’t land any jumps.  Other days, I could land them all. Struggle through the bad days, because a good day might be tomorrow.

Performance.

  • Show up to your events on time, unhurried, and composed.
  • Your performance begins as soon as the audience (and the judges) can see you, and even earlier….  How you take the ice/stage shapes the audience’s perception of your entire performance.
  • Be polite to your fellow performers, even if you can’t stand them.
  • Your starting and ending poses matter.  They reflect the mood of your performance.
  • The costume you wear should echo the choreography and the music… but don’t be a cliche.
  • If you mess up, fall, fumble, or forget your choreography, keep going.  Positive thinking will carry you further than you realize.
  • If your music stops, keep going.
  • Secure your costuming.  One hair pin on the ice can mean disaster for the next skater, just as one open safety pin on a stage can be incredibly dangerous for the next dancer.
  • If a piece of your costume falls off, keep going.  Only stop if a malfunction reveals something indecent.
  • You are performing, not executing a series of tricks.
  • Musicality matters.  Being able to time your movements with your music creates a special kind of magic.
  • Dance to the classics.  How many times will we hear music from: Scheherezade, Schindler’s List, Dances with Wolves, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Firebird, Carmen, etc. this year at the Olympics?  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  It’s how the skaters use the music.  These are overused compositions because they work for the art form, just as our oft-heard songs do the same for belly dance.
  • Dance to new classics. Skater Ashley Wagner took an artistic risk by using Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” for her short program music, but it works.
  • Be passionate, but not egotistical.  We can tell the difference.
  • Hold your ending pose for at least three seconds.  Let the audience see you end your routine with confidence, even if you messed up.
  • After you have held your ending pose, do a confident and reverent bow.  Acknowledge all sides of the audience (for belly dancers, that includes your musicians, should you be performing with a live band), and your coach.
  • Sometimes the judges (audience) are wrong.

And Beyond.

  • Do it for the joy it brings you.
  • Be confident, yet humble.  It’s a cliche, but it’s true.
  • Rhinestones really do enhance a costume.

 

 

 

The Mystery of the Missing Hip Work

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.

 

 

Thoughts on staying healthy this winter

Autumn and winter bring cold weather for many of us (unless, of course, you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, happy almost summer!), and this change can leave our bodies vulnerable to illness and injury.  You might notice your muscles tightening and your flexibility waning. If you have sensitive joints, they might be more achy than usual.  As dancers we must take extra care of our bodies, particularly those of over 30.  Our muscles and joints just aren’t as resilient anymore, and old injuries from our teens and 20s start creeping back into our practice with a vengeance.  (I have scar tissue in my left hip—my landing leg—from over a decade of figure skating.  I stopped skating regularly when I was 18.  That stuff just doesn’t go away.)

This winter, I’m making a concerted effort to keep my body happy and healthy.  Apart from the usual “remember to wash your hands” advice,  here are some little reminders as we head into the chilly holiday season.

  • Take more time to warm up before a show.  Performing cold is perhaps one of the most dangerous things a dancer can do. Bring extra socks, gloves, and sweaters (zip or button-up) to keep toasty in those cold back-stage areas.  I also always have a pair of “gig sandals” in my bag to keep my bare feet away from cold floors.  And remember that warming up does not mean just stretching.  Squats, Sun Salutations (A and B), alternating plies and releves in 1st and 2nd position, and good ol’ crunches and push-ups will help you generate heat from inside your body.  Bring a yoga mat with you if you suspect the floor will be dirty (I love my foldable Gaiam travel mat).
  • When you’re not dancing, stay warm on the outside.  Indulge in cozy robes and slippers at home, and hats and gloves for going out.  Keep your pulse points covered (throat, wrists, and ankles), as well as your head.  Break out those leg warmers for class and while running errands.  Own at least one wool sweater.
  • Stay warm on the inside.  What we eat has a dramatic effect on our health (understatement of the century, right?)  I’m an advocate for eating a plant-based diet, but I do crave a bit of meat in the winter, as it has warming properties (according to Chinese medicine).  If you’re a strict vegetarian, spicy foods can keep us warm internally.  My favorite winter foods include hearty lentil stews and Chinese-inspired noodle soups.  I also love vegetarian Indian dishes.  Our cabinet is also full of teas and herbal infusions that contain a healthy dose of ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, and cardamom (think “chai” or “pumpkin” spice). I also prefer to have warm breakfasts; even instant oatmeal with cinnamon, ginger, and honey does the trick.   If you’re prone to getting cold, even in mild weather, pay extra attention to what you consume.  Personally, I avoid cold milk (which isn’t very good for you anyway), soy milk, and wheat.  (Personal aside: when I cut wheat out of my diet in 2007, I was the only woman in my office who didn’t complain about it being too cold.)
  • Find a good bodyworker.  And I don’t mean just massage.  Find someone who can identify the physical and anatomical imbalances in your body and work out old scar tissue.  An experienced bodyworker will help you avoid injury by keeping your body open and aligned.  Also, when your muscles are loose, you might see an improvement in your overall circulation, which will keep you warmer.
  • Bring clean clothes to change into after a sweaty dance class.  You might be hot in the studio, but when you step outside, those damp clothes will feel freezing!  This seems like a no-brainer, but even I forget.
  • Don’t force your stretches.  Even if you feel warm.   You might be able to get all the way into that forward fold during the summer, but when winter rolls around, your mobility might be more limited.  Acknowledge those changes, and be kind to yourself.
  • Allow yourself to rest.  This is also a bit of a no-brainer, but in our fast-paced culture, it’s easy to forget.  We feel guilty when we take time for ourselves, but we really shouldn’t.  All throughout the natural world, animals and plants are winding down for the winter, finding ways to conserve food, resources, and energy.  We humans need to remember that we are animals, too, and require a bit of winding down ourselves.

I hope you find this list useful, particularly if your body, like mine, tends to “run cold”.  Here’s to a healthy and happy autumn and winter!

 

Are you truly listening? Musicality and movement.

Musicality has been on my mind lately.  I have been told by many people, including some who I admire more than I can say, that my dancing in incredibly musical.  Even my improvisations to live drum solos and taqasim, when I don’t know the music or what the musicians will play next.  My ice dancing coaches also remarked on my ability to connect with the music, and they would fiddle with the tempo knob on the tape deck (remember those?) to see if I could keep up or slow down with the song… and I always could, if I didn’t break into laughter first (because, really, who wants to do a reeeaaally sssssssllllooooooowwwwww foxtrot?).  Whether or not you think I’m musical, I do feel that musicality is an essential skill for any belly dancer, regardless of style.

When I watch a dancer, I watch for a few key elements: technique/posture, emotional expression, and musicality.  If a dancer naturally has great expression and musicality, her (or his, of course) teachers have an easy job; teaching technique is the easy part.  Teaching expression is a little more difficult, but through creativity and acting exercises, a dancer can make great progress.  Musicality, however, I think is one of the most difficult concepts not just to teach but to convey in a practical manner.  musicality is funny thing… the concept is a bit like a wriggly eel.  You know it exists, but it’s difficult to pin down.  How one dancer hears the music isn’t how another dancer will hear the music.  I don’t believe that a dancer must be a master at reading music on a staff or know how to play a melodic instrument to have a strong musical sense.  I tried to learn guitar and piano and never succeeded. However, here are some tips.

  • Understand the tempo, rhythm, meter, and pulse of your music.  Tempo is the speed of the basic beat; we measure this in “Beats Per Minute” (BPM).  (Don’t know what BPM your song is in? Check out this awesome website).  Think of a metronome: the continuous, steady TICK tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick (this example is for a song in 4/4).  Rhythm is the underlying percussion (drums and similar instruments); in Middle Eastern music we must learn and recognize dozens of rhythms from the ubiquitous Saidi (in 4/4) to the flowing Samai (in 10/8) and to the tricky Sama Zarafat (in 13/8).  Time signature is how many beats per measure; basically this is how much you keep counting before you start over.  As dancers, we often count in 8, but some songs are counted in 9 (like in a lot of Turkish folk and Roman music) or, like the Samai and Sama Zarafat in 10 or in 13.  A song counted in 9 will, in its most basic form be counted like this: TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick.  9 “ticks” with an emphasis on the first one, the “1″.  The pulse is a bit less technical; it is the “feel” of the song.  Saidi music with its heavy drums and wailing mizmars feels heavier than a delicate nay taqsim.
  • Listen to the melody.  The melody, in its most basic sense is a combination of rhythm and pitch. Higher pitch notes have a higher vibrational frequency; lower pitch notes have a lower vibrational frequency.  In general, we interpret higher pitch sounds higher in the body, and lower pitch sounds lower in the body; this is a great guide for beginners, however skilled dancers can break these rules by keeping the quality of the sound in their movement, regardless of what body parts they move.  Many songs have a structure, meaning that they have different repeating melodic sections.  We often refer to these by letters: the first section being “A”, the second “B”, the third as “C” and so on.  Basic songs will have A through C or A through D.  The melody is played by different instruments (naturally), and these instruments have different tonal qualities (known as timbre, pronounced “tahmber”).  A violin is continuous, yet has a tension (produced by the drawing of the horse hair bow over metal strings), the nay is also continuous, but has a more hollow, open feel.  An acoustic guitar has more attack, meaning that the sound made as the pick plucks the strings happens almost immediately, and drops off quickly; it is more percussive than the violin or nay.  The qanun and oud are similar, as they are plucked, however, the oud, with its pear-like shape, creates a slightly rounder sound than the qanun.  Different movements have different qualities as well: locks and isolations are hard-contraction movements that work better for sharper sounds, and soft-contraction movements such as figure 8s and circles are better for interpreting continuous sounds.  Don’t be afraid to play, but never stop listening.
  • When the music stops, you stop.  When the music goes, you go.  It’s the dance equivalent of Red Light / Green Light.  I have seen countless taqasim performed by fantastic and even famous dancers who keep moving when the musician takes a pause or a breath.  If the sound stops, your movement should stop.  When the musician continues, then you continue.  If you keep dancing, it shows that you’re not really listening to your music, and if you’re not really listening, then what are you dancing to?  Of course, a dancer can choose to dance over the sound for theatrical purposes; however, I feel that a dancer must be quite skilled to pull this off.  It takes more skill and presence to be in the music than it does to dance over it.
  • Listen to a lot of music. If you’re a belly dancer, you really should be listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music.  Arabic and Turkish music operates under different rules and (generally) evolved from different traditions than European music.  The tuning systems are sometimes unfamiliar (maqamat, singular maqam), containing microtones (think of a key between the white and black keys of the piano) and embellishments not found in most Western music traditions.  American jazz, however, comes close at times, with its long improvised sections and complex syncopations.  And speaking of jazz, a dancer should listen to lots of other music, preferably music that challenges your ear.  That pop station on the radio just isn’t going to do it.
  • Most importantly: the music should inform your dance; not the other way around.  What do I mean by this?  Your movements should be a reaction to the sounds, not a reaction to your internal dialog.  If you’re thinking “Am I doing enough?”, “Oh no! I forgot everything I know!”, “I feel like my movements are so boring!”, “What if the audience thinks I look dumb?”, “What should I do next?”…. then you’re not listening to the music, are you?  You’re listening to the voice in your head.  We all have it, but we must learn to ignore it.  (Not that ignoring that voice is easy; it’s a process that takes a lifetime.)

Of course, developing a sense of musical timing and interpretation takes longer for some dancers than for others, but I do think that with some true listening, a dancer can learn to be more musical.  And of course, there isn’t always one correct way to interpret a sound; if we all interpret an oud taqsim in the same manner, then we would be robbing ourselves of the creative experience.  Belly dance is unique in the realm of movement arts in that it is characterized by the dancer aiming to “become” a physical representation of the music.  With our sophisticated torso and hip isolations, combined with artful layers, one dancer can interpret an entire orchestra with her body.  Why dance over the music when you can become the music?

 

 

Combinations, Choreography, and Beyond “Dance by Numbers”

Choreography is more than combinations…

Both Tempest and Princess Farhana have posted excellent blogs about learning, remembering, or eschewing choreography in belly dance.  We often use the word “choreography” in belly dance to mean “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music,” but I’m here to argue differently.  True choreography is much deeper, with greater gravity and meaning.  To me, “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music” means a combination or routine.  And there is nothing wrong with combinations or routines.  They are essential learning and teaching tools for all dancers, but they lack the emotional and artistic depth that true choreography contains.

Choreography exists on a richer artistic plane.

Within the world of belly dance, there are very few true choreographers.  I’d even venture to say that there are very few true choreographers in general.  You know… the Twyla Tharp or Alvin Ailey types who have that gift to push the creative boundaries of movement, emotion, and staging.  The ones that hear a piece of music and can somehow tease out the expressive nuances, challenging dancers’ bodies in ways we never thought possible.  These are the people who don’t “paint by numbers,” and not all of them are even very well-known.   (For the record, I am certainly not a gifted choreographer; I’m a natural improviser, and have one heck of a time remembering my own combinations and routines, and I must work very hard to create them.)

The prospects and perils of “dance by numbers”

Most belly dance routines, regardless of stylization, are like that childhood art project “Paint by Numbers.”  Use the brown paint to fill in all the areas labeled “1″, the red paint for “2″, the green for “3″ and so on… and when you’re done, you have a nice tidy image… that lacks creativity or personality. You wouldn’t call these pieces “art”, would you?

The same thing happens in belly dance.  If it’s an oriental or raqs sharqi routine, the promenade begins, and the dancer glides out with her veil, chasse-ing and turning her way around the stage until she takes center stage, flings her veil away, and boom-boom rakatak boom rakatak the baladi rhythm kicks in for some crowd-pleasing hip-drops.  Add in a melodic section, a folkloric section (Sa’idi kicks or a Khaliji-inspired hair tosses), and an exciting malfouf ending, and you have a typical oriental routine.  In Tribal Fusion, dancers use a different formula, but it’s still a formula (which I have greatly simplified here): slow, slinky melodic intro song to highlight a dancer’s backbends, muscular arm waves, and other slow fluid movements, and then an electronica song (dubstep has been popular lately, however, mash-ups of classical orchestral elements with electronic percussion have been quite favored, too) or a drum solo to show off locks, isolations, and hard-contraction movements.

There are certainly merits to the formulaic approach to dance composition, and, of course, not all dancers perform this way.  As students of the dance we must learn what the guidelines and rules are to creating dances so that we can then fashion performances that reach beyond them.  We spend much of our time learning how movements connect so that we can participate in festivals and recitals as part of our performance training.  I’ve started adding 30 minutes of combinations at the end of several of my own workshops so that dancers can have a more “hands-on” experience with how I approach different stylizations and concepts.

As we continue our studies, many of us learn or get the idea that these formulas are what define our dance, and that we must follow these “rules” in order to either be respectful of the dance itself (in the case of raqs sharqi) or to be considered relevant in the Tribal and Fusion scenes (ironic considering that Tribal Fusion has become as formulaic as the raqs sharqi it was rebelling against).  I’ve even heard Middle Eastern musicians tell dancers that they must “shimmy to the qanun” and perform “snake arms to the nay”, because that’s what’s expected of us.  (Because, apparently, the musicians know more about how to do our work than we do.)

Beyond the numbers

If you watch a performance by a great choreographer, (like Mia Michaels or Wade Robeson from the world of contemporary dance) these pieces are far from formulaic.  They blend familiar steps with strange, whimsical, challenging movements to convey the emotional and theatrical perspective of the piece.  The choreography itself might only be a minute and a half long, as is the case with “Fix You” by Travis Wall, and yet fills the stage with innovation, sentiment, and absolutely stunning dance technique on the part of the dancers themselves.  When you watch their compositions, you’re watching far more than combinations of movement set to music… you’re watching living, breathing, moving art.

What does that mean for those of us who just aren’t naturally gifted choreographers, relegated to creating decent combinations and routines for our students, never really breaking through that artistic wall?  We have to keep creating, regardless, and we have to be aware that there are formulas in our own dance world… formulas that must be broken responsibly.  The more routines we make, the more combinations the teach, and the more we improvise (yes), the greater our skill as creative dancers becomes.  And we must seek out those in our field (and outside our field) who create innovative work, learn from them, and then… make more dances of our own.

 

Live! On Stage! (Or, why don’t you stop recording and just watch the show?)

Ahh, the smartphone.  It allows us to be in touch with everyone all the time.  An extravert’s dream, I’m sure (as an introvert, I have a complicated relationship with social media).  On our smartphone we have access to email, chat, games, camera, and video recording capabilities at our fingertips.  Such a gadget is invaluable for capturing those moments we want to remember for years to come… but sometimes, using that capability is, in my opinion, inappropriate and distracting. (And don’t even get me started on audience members who forget to turn off their ringers or silence their phones. It’s rude, inappropriate, and tacky.  If you are on call or need to be accessible at all times, switch your phone to vibrate, and keep it near you so you can feel it.)

I’ve noticed throughout my years of performing how pervasive and ubiquitous the cell phone camera has become at live events.  And as an audience member, it is so frustrating to see the sea of tiny glowing screens pop up before me as an artist takes the stage.  As a performer, it’s doubly frustrating, because I know that no matter what happens, someone will have record of my performance without my permission.

As both a performer and an audience member, I wonder, “Why can’t you just enjoy live art? In the moment? Right here… right now?”

You won’t be able to capture that feeling you get when you watch a dancer or musician live, in front of you. You just can’t.  And that’s the point.  It’s fleeting, ephemeral, and yet a strong performance will live on forever in our memories.  Live art is so extraordinary because a camera can’t capture the magic of that moment.  Why would you want to record a performance for later when that performances is happening right in front of you, in person?  The magic is temporal, impermanent.  This is why we buy a ticket to attend a live performance.

Additionally, when you use your phone to record someone’s performance, you’re not actually watching her.  You’re thinking about yourself.  You’re thinking about how you’re recording that few minutes of movement for your own creation, to watch later, so that you can learn from it or use it for your own art. It’s selfish. In front of you is someone on stage, giving their heart and their body to you, the audience, and you’re there with your camera taking it all for your own devices.  And when you’re focusing on keeping a dancer in the frame of your iPhone’s screen, you’re distracting yourself from the immersive experience of being an audience member.

Another aspect of this issue is that most of the time, this recording is not consensual. I’ve performed at shows in which I have not given explicit permission to the audience to record my performance, and yet there are the inevitable cameras popping up like weeds over people’s heads.  Unless the MC has said, “The artist has given the audience permission to record her performance,” then the recording of that performance is a violation of her artistic space.  Some artists are not so particular about having their shows filmed by non-official videographers, but I can tell you first hand that there are some whom it absolutely infuriates…. and they feel as though there is so little they can do about it.  It’s a shame.

If you want to watch a performer on screen, buy a DVD or watch the performances that the artist has put up on their own YouTube channel for viewing.

When you’re at a performance, put away your phone and be present in that space and in those precious moments that will never happen again.  What you can take home with you is that feeling of connecting with a performance.  A camera, no matter how sophisticated or high-definition, will never be able to capture the essence of live art.  Accept that fact, turn off your electronic devices, and enjoy the show.

 

Cabaret Creep: Have we blown our fuse?

Three years ago I made a prediction in this post, titled “The New Face of Tribaret“.  I saw the “big name” dancers in the fusion belly dance scene starting to dance to more Arabic music, embracing cabaret aesthetics such as mermaid skirts and bedla, but in distinctly contemporary interpretations.  I’m not sure how much attention it garnered when I first wrote it, but I do believe that I was right on the money.

Last year at Tribal Fest 12, Rachel Brice and her Datura students, dripping in antique jewelry and assuit, performed (one of my favorite pieces of the weekend) to music from this album (along with other music)—Nadia Gamal: Music for an Oriental Dance—which is not at all music for Tribal Style belly dance… like, at all.  With Zoe Jakes’ Bhoomi Project, we have performed straight-up belly dance pieces, including one with finger cymbals, but with Zoe’s signature contemporary stylization and to music by her world-fusion electronica band Beats Antique.  The photos filtering in from TribalCon 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia, show a host of “tribaret” fusion costuming, with dancers in sequins, rhinestones, color, and (gasp!) showing lots of leg.  Even self-proclaimed dance “dinosaur” Yasmin Henkesh attended and performed Egyptian oriental style at 3rd Coast Tribal this year in Texas, indicating a blurring of the lines between “Cabaret” and “Tribal”.

A little personal aside: When I performed at TribalCon in 2010, I wore a “tribaret” costume, and danced to Arabic music: a qanun taqsim and a drum solo. At the time, I, too, was returning to my American Cabaret roots, but I also wanted my performance to reflect the workshop I taught at TribalCon that year which focused on the Salimpour legacy in tribal style belly dance, including the seminal Jamila Salimpour belly dance format.  I distinctly remember being a bit, well, misunderstood.  People said I was too sparkly, and thought it was odd that I would do a “cabaret” performance, especially at a tribal event.  Personally, I don’t think that performance was straight up “cabaret”; if it were, I would have danced to different music, such as, say, “Aziza” or “Habibi Ya ‘Aini”. But, as we all are, I was immediately labeled, and I believe that many of my followers felt I was betraying my “dark fusion” self for a happier, sparklier dancer (who was always there, but most people had not seen me dance in my earlier, more oriental days).

So, what does it mean that fusion and tribal-associated dancers are integrating more oriental elements into their dance and costuming?  Did the fusion trend burn itself out?  Did we stray so far from the roots of the dance that we felt so disconnected that we decided to pull back just a bit?

I have a theory that I haven’t really tested, and it’s two-fold:

1) Yes, tribal fusion as a whole went as far as it could, and that return is what we are witnessing, and will continue to witness for several years.  When we run out of glitchy electronica, wear holes in our Melodia pants, and pop and lock until we drop, we will either decide that Middle Eastern belly dance isn’t really what we were attracted to in the first place (we sought other things from the dance, such as an extended sisterhood or family, wearing beautiful costumes, or feeling secure in our bodies, all of which are valid reasons for seeking out any activity, but all miss the point that belly dance must be learned within a certain cultural framework) or we will seek out the roots and history of this dance form, cultural baggage and all. Which leads me to the second part…

2) I remember when tribal fusion really hit the national scene. The year was 2003. The United States had just invaded Iraq, and we still reeled from the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Our national relationship with the Middle East shifted in a huge way over the course of only a few years, affecting the Western world.  I believe that tribal fusion allowed many of us to have a limited emotional engagement with belly dance, an art so quintessentially Middle Eastern and yet so terribly misunderstood (dare I say like the region itself), on our own artistic terms.  Tribal in its essence is Western, and evolved from Western belly dancers, beginning in California, and eventually expanding within and beyond the fantasy-folkloric contexts of Renaissance faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism.  We, as a community, could take the elements of belly dance we wanted—the movement, the costuming, the community, and some of the music, while eschewing the elements we didn’t—the sexualization of the dance by non-dancers, the oxymoronic role of the belly dancer in Middle Eastern society, and the responsibility of representing a culture not our own.  Tribal fusion allowed us to belly dance on our own Western feminist terms: we wore a lot of black, didn’t show our legs, performed to lots of non-Arabic music (Indian and Balkan music, however, was acceptable, but Arabic music was “too cabaret”, and if we did dance to Arabic music, we would in a distinctly tribal fusion style) and called ourselves “dance fusion artists.”

Ten years later, September 11th has become a chapter in history books, and US troops have returned from Iraq.  The United States, no longer the hegemony it was, our economy a wreck, and the dollar weak, is not so intimately involved in the affairs of the Arab world (although, as I write this, President Obama is visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories, harkening back to the Clinton-era days of Camp David diplomacy).  And I believe that because of this geo-political shift, we belly dancers feel that we can step into the pool of Middle Eastern music and aesthetics, wearing bedla and cabaret-inspired costuming, performing to Arabic music, and learning Arabic oriental and folkloric stylizations.

Ultimately, we still want to express ourselves artistically and emotionally, and the proliferation of stage presence and theatrical skills workshops reflects that need, but I believe we can do so within the context of Middle Eastern music and movement.  I also don’t believe that this new trend is any way a step backwards, but rather a new branch in the evolution of the dance.  Those of us who associate with the fusion belly dance community don’t necessarily want to dance like they do “over there”; however, in order to express ourselves as belly dancers (as opposed to contemporary or interpretive dancers), we must train in various indigenous stylizations and understand Arabic music (which, in turn, means having an understanding of the culture and politics of the region).  I see the return to “tribaret” and the fascination with pre-Tribal belly dance as an exciting development, encouraging dancers to learn more about the origins of the dance so that we can continue to innovate and inspire future generations.

 

A trick to making art.

Are you doing tricks or are you making art?

In this age of YouTube, Facebook, “on demand” television programming, and short sound bites (bytes?), many of us are conditioned, whether we are conscious of it or not, to expect a “Wow” factor when we watch a performance.  We can fast forward someone’s YouTube video to look for a cool trick or cute combination that impresses us.  Often, we’re watching each performance, even live ones, or even especially live ones, with a “Show me what you got” attitude.  And because of this, many belly dancers go on stage with a “Let me show you what I got” attitude in return.

I think that the short performance time slots we are allotted contributes to this approach.  How on earth can I get your attention in a hall full of vendors, friends, and other distractions in 5 minutes?  First I must have ear-catching music to get your attention in the first place. Then, once I have your attention, I must have a cool costume to keep you visually interested.  Then I must perform “cool” and “impressive” tricks to keep your attention.  These tricks don’t even have to be particularly difficult.  A belly flutter is not really difficult at all, but I can tell you that it’s a surefire way to get applause and cheers.  The same goes for sustained shimmies, Choo-Choos, and backbends.

Are tricks art?  Does that kind of performance take the audience on an emotional journey?  Is getting people’s attention why you want to dance?  Honestly, I’m not sure that the dancers who take this approach to performing even know that they are doing it.  It’s easy to get addicted to the cheers, the “Oohs” and “Ahhs” of the audience without reflecting on the nature of it.  The “show me what you got” attitude is so pervasive, in the United States particularly, that it’s difficult to know that we’re buying into it.

Would you go to the opera with this attitude?  Probably not.  Most operas are 3 or more hours long.  Last week I went to the San Francisco Opera’s production of Tosca, and it was three hours long.  I was entranced the entire time.  The story, the singing, the acting, the orchestra, the arias swept me away and when Tosca herself leapt to her death out of despair, I cried.

However, because of the festival culture, even at local haflas and recitals, we belly dancers are forced to present ourselves as artists, dancers, and people in the span of 5-7 minutes.  Tosca had three hours.

Even though we must often compress our performances to fit festival and hafla time limits, I believe it is still possible to take the audience on an emotional ride, even if it’s a short one.  To do so means eschewing the temptation to impress or be cool or edgy, or even to play the “role” of the belly dancer.  By choosing music that truly moves us emotionally, beyond, “This song is so awesome!”, and costuming ourselves in ways that reflect the intent of our performance (Urban Tribal Dance Company’s performance to Murcof’s “Memoria” is still one of my favorites, and they were wearing simple tops and Melodia pants), we can move away from, “Let me show you what I’ve got.”

And, as audience members, we have to shift our focus.  We have to watch a performance not for cool tricks or for movements that we want to learn from the dancer on stage.  We have to sit back, detach ourselves from our egos, and let the performance wash over us.  Some performances aren’t successful in this way, but many are, and I think that we miss a lot of the more subtle and artistic presentations because we constantly want to be impressed.  If we just sit and let the performer take us on a journey, we can have a collective artistic and emotional experience, and both performer and audience can walk away fulfilled.