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?

 

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I label myself ATS or tribal fusion (depending on the gig I am looking for)– mostly so whoever is hiring me reasonably knows what to expect of my performance. Especially when it comes to ATS/ITS, because the stylizations are so specific, I feel it is important to present myself accordingly.

I also use those labels because they accurately describe the styles of bellydance which resonates most strongly with me, and which most strongly influence my dancing.

It is not an exclusionist sentiment or meant to disparage other dancers who dance other styles. The simple fact of the matter is that I am NOT particularly interested in performing any pieces that are predominantly influenced by oriental styles at this point in my journey. I love watching performers who perform other styles and perform them well, but those styles are not my particular interest as a performer, and I don’t feel like they have to / should be, either, as an artist with a specific POV. Likewise, I don’t feel comfortable making judgments about anyone else based on the styles of bellydance they choose to perform, or changes in their artistic journey as they evolve, either.

I guess I am essentially saying that I don’t feel pigeonholed in any way by defining myself as an ATS and tribal fusion dancer. It simply is what it is, and I find those labels accurate to describe the types of dance I perform. I don’t feel that labeling myself as an ATS & tribal fusion dancer is in any way a negative thing or a commentary on a limited ability as a dancer or anything condescending like that. If my interests change and I want to include other forms of bellydance as dominant influences in my performance… I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, openly and honestly.

 

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I don’t know what to label myself stylistically speaking, and frankly, ‘labeling’ is something I’m not too concerned about. I’m on the same boat as you my dear Asharah. The only ‘label’ I want to own, is that of someone who is conscious of what she presents to the general public. “The more I study the many varieties of belly dance, the more I have in my creative toolbox” -this is something I have been telling my peers for months. I hear my dance sisters talk about wanting to have the creative freedom and not be bound by rules, but how can anyone have such freedom when they refuse to just learn. You can’t break the rules if you don’t learn to follow them first. I’ve said it before, learning one style or another doesn’t automatically give you a label. It gives you power.

 

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To add to my earlier post, it does seem like people expect you to have a certain “label”. I danced at Saqra’s monthly revue this past Saturday for the first time to live ME music. When Saqra asked me what style I was, I honestly didn’t know what to say. I have a strong ATS background, but I also have a strong background in ‘generic bellydance’. I shared the 11 minute set with a friend, she did the beginning, we did tribal improv in the middle and I finished the set with the drum solo. The song was the ever-popular Misirlou, chosen by the hostess, one I’ve never danced to. I have to say that it was one of the best experiences in my life and that I was GLAD I had that ‘generic bellydance’ background. I feel that knowing both types worked in my advantage, as I’m very proud of the result. After that hot second where I was asked about my style, I decided that I am first and foremost a bellydancer.

 

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I think Christina has a good point here. We specialize in our training, in part because it’s harder to develop skill at more than one style at a time, and in part because of our tastes. With that specialization in mind, the labels help people understand what they’re getting (if they hire you) and what they’re seeing (if they’re about to watch you perform). In the case of ATS, I already know I can dance with Christina just from seeing her chosen label.

These days I call myself a Theatrical ATS dancer, because the core of my dance partner & my work remains ATS while we’ve started incorporating pantomime and Balla Guerra as we learn it. And I want to honor all of my teachers and fellow dancers by being as clear as possible about what I am performing and where it came from.

This could be done at the *performance* level rather than the *performer* level, though. Some of our performances are pure ATS without other layers of theatre, just as some of your performances might be pure Asharah and others more obviously gothic.

 

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Id rather not label myself or what I teach as a particular style. In my case its more of a label to indicate what we dont usually do (eg: wear fringey sequined bedlah’s, dance to arabic pop songs, perform regularly in restaurants) instead of what we do do, which is a wide range of styles, asthetics and influences really.

Ive tried to think up another name for what we do that more clearly defines our style but I’m stumped every time. For now Tribal Bellydance will have to do.

 

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I like your philosophy of well-roundedness. It’s just that there are so many options, sometimes you just have to focus on a few. For me that has meant focusing on oriental, Persian and kathak; I have tried debke and have thought of getting certified in Suhaila and Jamila format, which has the advantage of incorporating western dance training, which I lack, and teaching both cabaret and tribal vocabulary.

 

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