A thought on ballet, bellydance, and public respect.

It’s a late and rainy night here in the Bay Area.  I’m visiting my family for the holidays, and my father gave my mother Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet for Christmas.  I started reading this huge tome of research, and I had barely read a fraction of the book before starting to have thoughts comparing the origins of ballet with the origins of belly dance.

One thought I keep having is why belly dance will never be as respected in the eye of the general public as ballet.  I’ve heard many belly dancers throughout the years say that they want to make belly dance as respected as ballet. While I do believe this is a noble cause, we can’t change how these dances have developed throughout the centuries.  The histories of both ballet and bellydance directly affect how each is viewed by the general public.

I’ll give you a little glimpse into my brain, and I’m sure I’ll expand on these ideas later, especially as I read more and more of the book.  As I read about the origins of ballet in the 16th century, this comparison flitters around my head:

Ballet (as we know it now) began as a European court dance, codified and performed mostly by men, specifically French kings.

Bellydance began who knows when, began in its more modern forms as a Middle Eastern folkdance, wasn’t codified until the 20th century (and there is still no universal standard codification of steps), and is mostly performed by women.

    I assume you start to see the problems inherent in comparing the two?

     

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    Also add in the fact that many of the early bellydancing women were A) slaves B) prostitutes/courtesans/concubines or C) slaves AND prostitutes/courtesans/concubines. And because of these things, they were pretty much invisible to the people writing the books; we’re lucky to have even some early medieval paintings of them, to know that yes, they existed, and they danced.

     

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    Frankly, I get SO TIRED of people trying to combine/compare ballet with bellydance. What is wrong with bellydance? Why can’t we just accept it for what it is, and rejoice in the reasons that it is NOT ballet. I took ballet and tap from 3 yrs old until I was 11, and in bellydance I have found a freedom of expression, movement and energy that was never present in the strict confines of ballet.
    Maybe bellydance would “get the respect it needs” when people stop trying to make it into something it isn’t.

     

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    Bellydance is a very sensual and sexual dance. It is my understanding that the early tribal dancers tried to de-sexualize the dance and make it more respectable by changing the costuming, some of the movements, and putting it on stage as an art form. However, as tribal fusion developed it seems that a more aggressive kind of sexuality appeared and it even veered into burlesque at times.
    For belly dance to be respected, sex would have to be respected. We do not live in such a time, we still live in a patriarchal world, despite gains for women and more enlightened attitudes. We read about a time when sex was considered sacred in such books as When God was a Woman and The Chalice and the Blade. Jehan in New York has tries to revive this attitude with her “Sacred Bellydance”. I don’t know if any of us will live to see a true revision in consciousness about women and sex.
    It is hard not to be respected, but we must hold fast to our attitudes of celebration and enjoyment of the dance, maybe it will help others to come around. It also makes sense to keep up our boundaries around people who don’t respect us.

     

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    I honestly think that we need to educate people on WHY we do this dance rather than let them see the dance and have their own thoughts engraved in their brains.

    Yes, women did these dances in the old days. But WHY did they do this dance? Well, mainly because they were forced to or they were desperate to get money to feed their families and the like.

    So why do we do this dance TODAY? To show off our own techniques and movements, to show off our talents. We no longer dance for the men, we dance for our fellow women!

    We need to educate that, yes, this started mainly because women were forced or because someone needed the money. But us women today are changing it because we want to show our femininity. We want to show that we are comfortable with who we are.

    With these other dances you have to hold your feet a certain way, your head a certain way, turn a certain way. But with belly dance you can combine anything, turn any way, place your feet any way. Just the posture is the only thing that must main constant between anyone. Belly dance really breaks out of the shell because we can be creative and expressive with our dances. It’s like when contemporary came into being to break the mold of ballet. No one wanted anything to do with contemporary because it had no base like ballet. But once the revolutionaries became entranced, it spread like wildfire.

    We just need to keep marketing until these visionaries come to us.

    We just need to keep educating people on what this dance was, is, and will be.

    People say to quit dwelling on the past and to move on with the future. They need to do that in all aspects of life, including dance.

    -Xi’Balba

     

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    Yes, bellydance is not ballet. But. BIG but. (and this is just my personal opinion) There’s no excuse for teachers to not provide quality instruction to student who are ultimately paying for it. Even if I’m never gonna perform, even if I’m doing it for myself, even if I want to just dance in the living room for my family and friends, for “fun”, there’s absolutely no excuse for a teacher to not provide proper feedback and correction, no excuse not to provide the tools for proper learning. Sadly there’s too much ego stroking in and out of the classroom, for fear to hurt people’s feelings, that we fail to see when we are providing our audience with mediocre work, and here I speak from personal experience when I wished I had the proper feedback before subjecting folks to my outrageous self-indulgence (I have video to remind me of what NOT to do). I’m not saying go all bootcamp on people, but if the teacher truly cares about the art they’re teaching, the student will see that and will act by example, and in the end, even if one is doing it for the fun, I am sure it will make a difference on how they present their art to others, and how the student feels about it, not to mention the benefit this would represent for the teacher. What best advertising than a student with a solid foundation!

     

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    my egyptian/gypsy/cabaret instructor has extensive ballet backgfound. I noticed that watching and doing ballet videos/blogs have made me more aware of my entire body. it enhances middle eastern dance, the same as for any athletes. but, we r using our entire bodies, posture. it is a lovely dance and when in good taste, it is lovely, like ballet of another time. we are all athletes. and we can , one at a time, encourage each other and change a lot of negative misconceptions. for instance, when i saw the more violent french ballet portrayals of male rough with female, i had to try to keep an open mind and see more to observe its’ evolution to nutcrackers and positive stories. they r not the same, but ballet ,even just a bit, is great to enhance that grace required and for strength,flexibility, isn’t it great, it brings us together, the women and men who want more expression via dance of all walks.HAPPY NEW YEAR,gypsy.

     

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    Generally, I feel at a disadvantage in being taken seriously as a bellydancer than a ballerina for three reasons.

    1. Most ballerinas spend their entire youths learning movements and techniques and building their bodies into the right shapes in order to execute them. Most bellydancers can have the basics down at a fairly solid level within a year (with dedicated practice of course). I know that it takes much more than that to reach a professional level in bellydance, but between the two dance forms, it pails in comparison to ballet with the length of time one must devote to being physically capable of doing that particular movement vocabulary.

    2. The costumes. When I’m up on stage, I’m only wearing a bra and whatever pants or skirt I have on. Mainstream culture often likes to sterotype this image of the bellydancer in skimpy clothing wiggling around to be seductive and sexy. So right there, because that is the general connotation about bellydancers, I am at a disadvantage. That link with sexuality is usually enough to make something be considered “low brow” and to be more about fan service than art.

    3. Level of audience interaction and purpose. There is a noticeable difference in how most bellydance shows are conducted in comparison to ballets. If I’m at a bellydance show, the dancer will usually mingle with the crowd, make eye contact, smile, and find a way to work the room. The job is usually to be the beautiful woman, who looks like she is having the time of her life, entertain those in the room. Yes, I do see some more introverted bellydance pieces, but most shows I’ve attended and have been a part of have been fairly informal and rely a great deal on audience interaction. In contrast, ballets are much more strict. The ballets usually have a set story, with dancers having to adhere to the nature of the characters they have been cast in. The dance is held up and away from the audience on a stage. There’s less pandering to the audience. One gets the sense that the audience should feel honored to be at such a show.

    I personally deeply love both art forms and see the merits in both. I think it is hard to compare the two though as both seem to be performed for different purposes. For bellydance to be taken more seriously by the public at large, however, I think a few simple things can be taken into account.

    1. Always adhere to a sense of modesty and professionalism when performing. (We’re not just hoochy cooch dancers).
    2. For those serious, be dedicated to their practice and training.
    3. Educate yourself about the origins of the particular steps and styles you add into your repetoire.
    4. Be willing to answer questions and be a “bellydance tour guide” for the curious; explain what the dance is, why you love it, where it came from, and maybe drag a friend to a class with you.
    5. Have standards and goals to work towards in class, personal training, and on the stage. Don’t sell yourself short.
    6. Honor your teachers and experiences. We should not only give thanks to the women that have paved the way and shaped the dance form into what it is today, but those who have been our teachers and fellow students throughout the course of our studies. Ballet enthusiasts can always rattle off a list of greats in composers, choreographers, dancers, etc. We too should honor those brave enough to give us both their hard work and spirit in their work.

    Erin

     

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    Lol @Asharah, how did you know? :)

     

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