I was watching some YouTube videos of dancers recently and a few thoughts came to mind about the importance of researching the background of the music you choose to use. If you’re using a folksong, traditional song, a song in a language other than your own, or even a song with lyrics in your own language, it’s rather important that you know the background and meaning of that song. Not researching the meaning of your music may lead to embarrassment on your part and offense on the part of your audiences.
Cabaret, oriental, and folkloric bellydance instructors make it clear to their students the importance of knowing the meaning and history of the music used in performance and class, mostly because the music that those dancers typically use is from the Middle East and these dancers often perform for people from the Middle East. How embarrassing for a dancer to perform a happy, light-hearted dance to a song that’s really about heartache and lost love to an audience full of people who know the true meaning of the song… not to mention that those audience members might be terribly offended that the dancer clearly had no idea of what that song means! Luckily, in cabaret circles, there are many experienced dancers who will gladly tell a less-experienced dancer the meaning of a song and the history behind it.
With tribal fusion dancers, however, the situation is a little bit different… Because tribal fusion is such a new genre, and also because it encompasses such a wide range of dance styles and music choices, we may not think we have many mentors or instructors to give us guidance on the meaning of a song. Unfortunately, I think a lot of newer dancers in the tribal fusion genre get wrapped up in the fun and artistic freedom of the style without thinking about the responsibility that they have as performers and as performers of an ethnic dance form with a rich history.
I find this phenomenon happening most often as tribal fusion dancers use more and more Balkan and Romany (Gypsy) music and blend it with old-timey, Vaudeville, circus, and sideshow themes. And of course, blending these images and ideas with bellydance is fun and entertaining, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to know the origins of our music. The Romany people have been persecuted and discriminated against throughout history, and much of their traditional songs reflect this collective experience. While a lot of Balkan Romany music sounds fun and entertaining, the lyrics of these songs can be much more sad than we Westerners might perceive. I saw a dancer performing a light-hearted, Vaudeville-inspired choreography to “Djelem Djelem” (lyrics and translation here), which is considered to be the Romany anthem. Jarko Jovanovic composed the words and set them to a traditional melody in response to Nazi persecution of the Gypsies during the Holocaust. It’s not exactly a happy song. (For further information and history of the Roma, visit this website.)
So, even though tribal fusion is such a new style, and it’s certainly going through its own growing pains, that doesn’t mean that those of us who perform this genre are excused from the responsibility of research, or from respecting our source material and music. Of course, not every traditional song has some deep, historical meaning… but it might. Please, if you choose to dance to a traditional song, particularly one with sung lyrics, take a few moments to poke around on the internet to find out the origins of that song.