A Question of Style
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we pigeon-hole ourselves as belly dancers into a particular stylization of belly dance. I pigeon-holed myself for a while, and I’m seeking to break free of my self-imposed limits. Others have most definitely labeled me as a certain style of dancer (I usually get labeled as “gothic belly dance” or “dark fusion”, but I’m not sure what you’d label my recent performance to “Lama Bada Yata Thanna”, a medieval Andalusian song).
A lot of students of belly dance like to be able to identify what style we want to dance right when we start taking classes, whether it be cabaret, oriental, raqs sharqi, Turkish, Egyptian, Lebanese, tribal, tribal fusion, American Tribal Style, Improvisational Tribal Style, fusion, gothic… you get the idea. We also pigeon-hole our peers into a particular style by expecting them to dance in a certain way, wearing a particular kind of costume, and performing to a certain kind of music. I’m sure you’ve heard someone talk about a dancer, saying, “Oh, she does tribal style” or “Oh, she’s a cabaret dancer”, and usually these sorts of talks aren’t the complimentary kind. I’ve observed that when a dancer defies expectation and changes one of these elements, her fans and friends sometimes express a feeling of betrayal. I’m sure you’ve also heard, “Oh, she’s ‘gone tribal'” or “She’s ‘gone cabaret’.”
Why do we box ourselves into particular styles? Why do we limit ourselves, and we do we insist on placing these stylistic limits on others? Why is it such a shock when a “tribal” style belly dancer dons a bedlah? And why is it a big deal when a cabaret dancer wears a coin bra (no to mention the fact that before the 1990s, coins were hardly a tribal-only costume element)?
Are we seeking an identity in a particular style of belly dance, and if so, why?
I know why I feel pressured to dance a certain way. When dance becomes your job, your sole source of income, you want promotors to hire you (so you can, you know, pay the rent and pay for groceries). If you made your initial foray into the touring and festival circuit as a “dark tribal belly dancer” and now you perform a more oriental or cabaret-influenced belly dance, those seeking a dark tribal belly dancer aren’t going to hire you. The oriental promotors might not hire you either because they know you as a fusion dancer (or, worse, they don’t know you at all). People often get frustrated when they can’t label something or categorize it (which is so very Aristotlean), so they might hire someone else who they can put into their own personal categorizations of belly dance, i.e. “We want a gothic belly dancer for this festival, so we’ll hire ______”. And suddenly what style you perform becomes a matter of putting food on your table… or does it?
Let’s bring it back to ballet for a moment. Ballet dancers learn their technique. They practice their barre work every day. They train the basics over and over again. When they are cast in a production, sometimes they are expected to do “character work”, such as “Arabian Coffee” or “Chinese Tea” in Tchaikovky’s Nutcracker. Now, imagine if a ballet dancer told the company director, “Oh, I don’t want to dance in ‘Arabian Coffee’, because I do ‘Chinese Tea’ style ballet.” WHAT? She’d probably lose her job.
When it all comes down to it, don’t we want our peers, colleagues, and instructors to be well-rounded? As a performer, I want to be versatile. I want to be able to execute various styles of belly dance. To limit myself to one style is to limit my creative and expressive freedom. Some dancers say that they find more freedom in belly dance fusion (and, oh yes, I used to think the same), but I believe that fusion is the hardest kind of belly dance; not only must you be an accomplished belly dancer, but you must also be accomplished in the style of dance that you are fusing into it. I also feel that the more styles of belly dance I learn, the more I can pull from to create my own personal stylizations. I love the grace and fluidity of oriental dance, the fire of Turkish oryantal, and the strength and power of American Tribal Style. The more I study the many varieties of belly dance, the more I have in my creative toolbox.
Those of you who have labeled yourselves, why have you done so? Those of you that expect others to belly dance in a particular style, why are you doing so?