“I’m a belly dancer, but…
…I don’t like Middle Eastern music.”
I hear this all the time. Honestly, every time I hear it, my heart breaks a little. It’s a bit like hearing, “I’m a ballerina, but I don’t like classical music.” Or, “I’m a jazz dancer, but I don’t like Duke Ellington.” You can be sure that a ballerina who hates classical music has learned to love it, or at least like it. She’s going to be dancing to it nearly EVERY DAY.
Maybe this all-too-common sentiment makes me sad because I do love Middle Eastern music. I admit that I don’t love all of it, but who loves everything in a particular genre or style of music?
But I wonder, why would you self-identify as a belly dancer if you don’t like dancing to Middle Eastern music? It’s one thing to experiment with non-Middle Eastern music. It’s another to eschew it completely from your performance repertoire or to say that you dislike all of it. If you’re not dancing to Middle Eastern music, I really don’t think you can call yourself a belly dancer. There. I said it.
Belly dance is inherently Middle Eastern. Whether it’s Turkish oryantal, Egyptian folkloric, Lebanese-style cabaret, Moroccan Shikhat: It’s all Middle Eastern.* One might argue that belly dance as a genre is at a developmental crossroads, with Westernized belly dance being one branch of its evolution and Middle Eastern belly dance being the other branch. I don’t think that we’re quite to that point, nor do I think that this argument (or any argument) is an excuse that allows for ignorance or dismissal of the historical and regional roots of this dance.
As Westerners (I’m an American, and many of my readers are also non-Middle Eastern), we are intuitively drawn to music from our own culture. This makes complete sense. (You all know that I’ve danced to crazy breakcore, arty electronica, and progressive rock–all of which are not at all Middle Eastern. But I’ve also danced to medieval Arabic muwashahat, Egyptian taqsasim, and drum solos) We want to dance to music that moves us, and rightfully so. We want to be able to give an honest performance to music that speaks to our hearts and souls.
I also think (and I do hear this quite a bit) that many of us are afraid that we won’t be able to do Middle Eastern music justice. That somehow, because we’re not experts on how they dance “over there”, we’ll disrespect the music and the culture. That we’ll misinterpret the song and do something offensive and uncouth. I know that I feel this way sometimes… BUT: If you research the song’s meaning and history, and you go into your new choreography with awareness and understanding, you won’t be disrespecting the song or its mother culture.
I’ll recount a little anecdote from a Level III workshop I attended with Suhaila Salimpour a while back. Before the workshop, we were required to create a work-in-progress choreography, using the feet and body placement only. No belly dance moves, no hip work, no arms. Just feet. One incredibly talented student had completed the assignment using a French tango of sorts: slow, languid, and sexy. Suhaila said, “OK, your choreography is lovely, but this isn’t Middle Eastern music. The assignment was to choreograph to Middle Eastern music.” She then asked this student, and the rest of the class, what sort of Middle Eastern music would have the same sentiment as this non-Middle Eastern piece that the student had selected. Many of us answered that a nice chiftetelli would work, but then Suhaila said to the student, “Actually, while a chiftetelli would work, this needs to be a debke. A really HOT debke. Go find a debke song and come back tomorrow with the SAME choreography, but to the debke.” The student was skeptical, but completed the assignment, performed the same choreography to the new song the next day, and DAMN if that wasn’t the HOTTEST fricking debke I had ever seen! It was “Village Girls Gone Wild”, and it was astoundingly brilliant.
I learned a lot as I observed this dancer complete this assignment:
- You can use Middle Eastern music and put your own sentiment into it.
- The movements you put to Middle Eastern music don’t necessarily have to be what they do “over there”.
- You can learn to love the music if your choreography and emotional perspective are precise and clear.
- You won’t be disrespecting the music if you choreograph outside the traditional “box.” (In fact, you’ll probably be even more creative in the process!)
If we are to continue to call ourselves “belly dancers” we must absolutely know how to perform to Middle Eastern music, and… we must learn to love at least some of the music from that region of the world. Chances are that we won’t love all of it, and that’s fine! I admit that I just don’t love Arabic pop, and shaabi music just gets on my nerves. I’m not a big fan of most of the “made for Egyptian bellydance” compositions (frankly, to me, they often lack emotion and start to sound all the same!). But I love Umm Kalthoum. I love a good drum solo. I love a beautiful ‘ud taqsim.
If you all were my students, I would give you an assignment:
Find a song you like. ANY song, regardless of regional origin. Choreograph 16 counts of 8 (or equivalent) to that song. THEN find a Middle Eastern song that has a similar sentiment or feeling. Take your choreography and set it into the Middle Eastern song without changing any of the steps. Does it work? What would you change? What would you keep? What did you learn in the process?
I am pretty sure that there will be a style of Middle Eastern music that will speak to you, too, but maybe you just haven’t found it yet. Take the time to explore the many styles of the region’s music, and don’t limit yourself only to recordings that are labeled “Belly Dance”. Middle Eastern music is more than just belly dance music. It is rich, varied, and it can be hauntingly beautiful. Saying, “I don’t like Middle Eastern music” is like saying, “I don’t like Western music.” There is SO MUCH variety in one region’s musical landscape. And if you find a song that does speak to you, and you dance to it from your heart, you won’t be disrespecting it or the culture. I promise. As non-Middle Easterners, we have to take some of our own culture with us into our choreographies and performances. How could we not? But we must also respect and research and honor the region’s history and arts. And, I am absolutely not saying that you have to dance to Middle Eastern music all the time; but being able to enjoy doing so is something I hope that every belly dancer can and will do in the course of her creative journey.
*I like to include North Africa–Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria–in with the Middle East region because of the similarity of customs, language, and culture.