The curious case of the dream catchers.
….or, another observation while teaching and performing in Europe…. and watching Ken Burns’ series The West on DVD.
The term “tribal” means myriad things to myriad people. “Tribal” can be a specific term, referring to a specific ethnic tribe of peoples, such as the Lakota Sioux native Americans, or the Tuareg nomads of North Africa. “Tribal” can also be more of a loose idea, evoking images of prehistoric man living in a time before agriculture, guns, or industry. The word “tribal” also conjures images of “savages”, peoples living in areas and times before electricity, before factories, before monotheism; Europeans and Americans have romanticized and exploited this imagery for hundreds of years.
So, many people come to this dance, this dance which we call “tribal style belly dance”, with an idea of what “tribal” means to them… and most of the time, their idea of “tribal” doesn’t really include belly dance. In fact, I’m sure a lot of them wonder, “what does ‘tribal’ have to do with belly dance, anyway?” And I know some of them ask, “What tribe?”
So, when we say “American Tribal Style Belly Dance”, what images are we evoking in the minds of the uninitiated? And what does “American Tribal” mean to someone who isn’t American or who isn’t familiar with American history and folk culture?
The words “American Tribal” to those outside the belly dance world probably will evoke images of Native American Indians on the Great Plains of North America, hunting bison on horseback, feathers in their hair, and other stereotypical ideas of how pre-European cultures lived on this continent. Furthermore, if a dancer outside the United States searched “American Tribal” on eBay, what items are retrieved?
When in Europe, I saw several costumes that incorporated Native American dream catchers on belts and hair ornaments. My initial thought was, “OK, that’s strange”, but then when I thought a bit more, I realized, “well, if you search ‘American Tribal dance’” on eBay, that’s an item that might come up.” As I think about this incorporation of Native American elements into tribal fusion belly dance costuming, I realize that I’ve seen more than just dream catchers, but leathers that look like buck skin, headdresses that are clearly inspired by the Great Plains Indians’ warbonnets, and other American Indian-looking items.
It made me think about what we’re saying as dancers when we incorporate not only Middle Eastern and South Asian tribal elements into our costuming but also Native American costuming elements. And it also made me wonder if these European dancers even know that the dream catcher, although it is an authentic tribal item, is not usually a part of the American Tribal Style Belly Dance costume. I suspect this is mostly because it is a Native American tribal item and might, at least in the United States, offend Native Americans who might be watching our performances. And why would a European dancer care that she’s wearing a Native American folk art? She might not know it’s an American craft, and furthermore, she might not have even been to the United States at all.
After all of this pontificating, rambling, and ruminating, I think I’ve concluded, at least temporarily, this: As dancers, we need to educate ourselves about the ethnic items that we choose to wear. Our costumes are the first things that our audiences see, and if the audience includes members of the General Public, then we need to pay even more attention to how we adorn ourselves. Just because something is listed as “tribal” on eBay, that doesn’t give us fair license to sew it on to our belts. Lack of curiosity is no excuse for ignorance. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t blend tribal elements in our costuming; it’s these ethnic items that make the tribal style costume so rich and beautiful! What I am saying is that you, dear dancers, have a responsibility to know where your costuming elements come from, what they represent, and what images they might conjure in your audiences imaginations.
Each belly dancer represents all of us. What are we saying about our community if we don’t even know the meaning of what we’re wearing?