“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 breakcorearty electronica, and progressive rock–all of which are not at all Middle Eastern. But I’ve also danced to medieval Arabic muwashahatEgyptian 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.

 

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I don’t really think a lot of people say ‘I don’t like xxx’, aren’t meaning they don’t -like- it. I’m not a huge fan of middle eastern music myself. I love some of it, and yes I love belly dance, but there’s some music I can’t listen to. But, the real question isn’t “Do I like it”, it’s “Do I appreciate it?” And the answer is YES.
I don’t think you have to like something, to fully appreciate it.
Do I think you have to like what you’re hearing to dance well to it? I’m sure it helps – but if you appreciate where it comes from, and the culture that created it, then that should be sufficient enough. Everything else, just makes it better.
It’s almost like having that horrible boss, who you hate with a passion – but can’t help but respect.

 

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“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.”

This is really important, and one of the reasons why you SHOULD dance to Middle Eastern music.

The music that moves you does so because it speaks your “language” (i.e., its structures and features are familiar to you) and/or because it evokes memories and associations.

Middle Eastern music will do the same thing, once you get familiar with it. You just need to give it a chance.

 

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Interestingly, I often will listen to (Western) music and draw parallels to ME music. I hear a zar here, an ayoub there, etc.

I also strongly believe that, for all that we may dance routinely to Western music, one needs to go back to the source every now and then and do the moves (be it drilling or just noodle around dancing) to ME music. There is a different level of understanding that comes from doing that.

Also, given the variety of music, I find it hard to believe that there is NOTHING whatsoever that one would be inclined to dance to. As a ‘baby dancer’, I was ‘raised’ on George Abdo and Hossam Ramzy. They still make me swoon and not just in nostalgia. It’s damn hard not to feel like a Queen or a Priestess on some of those pieces.

 

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    Celeste – I totally do the same thing with Western music that you do: I hear Middle Eastern-like rhythms and melodies and compare them back and forth. A piece I’m working on now has Middle Eastern overtones in the melody, but it is absolutely a progressive rock song. I like, though, that it sort of “crosses over”. :)

     

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I cannot help but wonder if exposure to the music changes that. When I first began to belly dance I was not crazy about Middle Eastern music. It was so different then what I was use to. Since the classes I take are ATS, that is what we dance to and rarely do we dance to anything else. . I take multiple classes a week and listen to the songs frequently when I am not in class, to familiarize myself with them before performaces. Now I love Middle Eastern music and I am glad that this is what we dance to.

 

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    I think you have an excellent point. Exposure to and familiarity with certain sounds will absolutely change the way someone feels about them.

     

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I love your ideas here, but I have encountered some problematic moments with some of this recently. I think that when dancing to ME music, there is only a certain extent to which you can go outside of the box in movement vocabulary, or it’s possible that you could offend some viewers, depending on their origins. Many artists don’t care about that, but it’s something that I myself have had to struggle with. I think a lot of people do break away from the traditional music because the movement vocabulary seems so confining- I know that I’ve always viewed it that way. I think it’s cool that you’ve managed to find an artistic individuality and genuine expression in that.

Another cultural slippery slope- dancing to Middle Eastern or ME-derived music with devotional implications (generally Islamic/Sufi). Many people are of the inclination that one absolutely should not select this music in any way to dance to. I’ve danced to Western devotional or somewhat religious music and would defend those choices, but I think decisions like this need to be made with care and cultural sensitivity.

Having grown up close to, but not a real part of some of these cultures, it’s interesting to see how one can categorize these things as confining or liberating artistically. It’s been a very hard struggle for me personally lately.

 

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    Yeah… I think no matter what you do, someone, somewhere, is going to find something wrong or offensive about a performance.

    And what you’re saying about devotional music: that’s why I encourage people to research the music to which they want to dance. THEN, if they find that the music they like is religious or devotional, then it’s their responsibility to seek guidance on whether or not it would be appropriate to dance to that particular piece of music. They would also have to seek out guidance on HOW to dance to that music (i.e. no crotch towards the audience if it’s an Islamic devotional piece). If it’s a fusion show with a mostly Western audience, I think that we can use ME music in a way that isn’t offensive (to most people, as there will always be the occasional douchewagon to say that something suck, regardless of how awesome it is).

     

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I fell in love with bellydance because of the music, specifically, the organic, traditional pieces I was hearing at SCA events. And I was thrilled to find gothic/industrial artists using ME rhythms, instruments, maqams, etc., in their pieces. Because of my SCA experience, I’ve found that so much early medieval music in some regions was directly derived from Middle Eastern music and poetry, via trade and the Crusades; some performance groups such as Oni Wytars Ensemble and Al-Qantarah (a musical ensemble from Sicily) bring this to the fore in their instrument choice and performances.

Like everyone else here, I don’t love all Middle Eastern music (the big orchestral pieces; quite a lot of the pop that just suffuses everything in sugary synthesizer strings). But there is quite a bit to love.

 

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“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.”

….. or don’t choreograph it, but instead bring out thr American Tribal Style. That also works for this assignment *IF* you know your ATS.

It makes me very sad that people are so quick to forget ATS… which is almost exclusively done to Middle Eastern Music.

Just my 2 gold pieces.

 

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    I wasn’t at all trying to leave out ATS. I’m a student of ATS myself! But, if you were my student, I’d still give you the same assignment. :)

     

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If you gave me that assignment, I’d still come back and do ATS :)

 

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    In theory, that’s fine as a hypothetical situation. However, if this were an actual assignment in MY class, I’d ask that you look outside of ATS, as a matter of respect to me and to the assignment given. The point of this would be to go outside your comfortable movement vocabulary. You could most certainly use movements from ATS, but I’d ask that you follow the assignment. You see what I mean?

     

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The mention of the SCA in an above post got my wheels turning. I’m a competitive fencer. When I tell people I fence, some say they fence as well. Rapier. This is not the same. Yes, it’s a blade. And the scimitar that I attempt to balance on my head is also a sword. But that doesn’t mean that just because I do, that I re-enact at festivals. Perhaps that makes me elitist. Perhaps what Asharah says makes her elitist. While I intend no offense, I don’t think either of us would apologize for it.

The question then becomes, why can’t I, in my study of Olympic-sport fencing, study rapier as well? Isn’t that weapon as important, historically, as saber or foil? Why is there a preference?

The difference is, I take it seriously, my peers take it seriously, and to a fencer, subscribing to theatrical fencing without studying the weapons, and science, of competition is empty. It *shouldn’t* exclude rapier on principle, but it does, because of the reputation it has developed over time.

By the same token, Asharah’s point, as I see it, isn’t that Gothic/Tribal/ATS dance is bad, but that because those styles are currently en vogue, the mother of those dance forms, Middle Eastern, has been marginalized. Asharah believes passionately that in order to be a true student of dance, one must know by heart its importance and significance. Not just study it, but live it, and allow its lineage to become a part of you.

Divide. Reluctance. Disinterest. Detachment. These all prevent the student from committing to practice. I believe it must also be a decision. If you can’t commit to the training, the study, why practice?

The danger here–and I’ve seen this in fencing for years–is that in investing, immersing onseself in the study, one risks alienating others who have an interest, but want it to be something less than the level of the professional athlete. In both activities, there are those who teach classes to the laypeople, those who have a curiosity, but who may not be ready, willing, or able to ‘go there’. This is a particular problem with womens’ fencing. Many young women as teenagers, a few more in college, but then a drastic drop-off afterward. Some stop due to family/work obligations, but I’ve known many more who’ve been pushed out and away from the sport by elitism and arrogance. “Go Hard Or Go Home” really does separate the wheat from the chaff–and while I do subscribe to it myself, I’m also saddened by the numbers of women that mentality pushes away.

Having said that: If you compete, if you perform, if you’re serious about your training, you are doing your art form a disservice by NOT learning about it fully. It’s one thing to have a focus, and a preference in the subset of movement you follow, but you must also have a knowledge and education in the roots of your art form to ‘speak’ it competently. As I write this, I think of the fundementals that I don’t know in my bladework, the ‘language of fencing’ that I’ve not made time to learn because of laziness, disinterest, or simple desire just to ‘have fun’– and I’m ashamed.

Bottom line–if you’re going to dance, or practice your art, just to have fun, that’s fine. I personally prefer dancing to industrial/goth/lyric music, because I identify with it–but I’m also not a professional, and I’ve made it clear to my teachers what my interest is at this point. And they accept that, because I’ve given them the courtesy of that conversation. In doing so, they are freed to give more time and focus to their more serious students. But if my interest changes, I know they will support me–but only as long as I pull my weight, work hard, and devote myself to learning and practice.

Cliffs: have fun if you’re there to have fun, learn Middle Eastern dance if you’re serious about your craft. Go hard, or go home.

 

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Havig danced in clubs and restaurants for an almost completely middle eastern audience for years before experimenting with western music, I would say this is incredibly valuable advice for those wishing to go deepe with their dance.

 

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    Thanks for the reply, lady. I swear one of these days we’ll actually be in the same place at the same time… like, say, Tribal Fest? Maybe?

     

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I’m often guilty of generalizing that I don’t like Middle Eastern music, when there’s no more one Middle Eastern music than there is one American music. What I truly dislike is the same 10-20 artists or songs that regularly get re-used; when I started as a student, they seemed exciting, but now I’m bored with them & they keep getting played. So I generalize badly, but at least I do spend time looking for music that moves me – some of it’s American, some of it’s Malian, Japanese, Greek or Balkan or Spanish, but some of it’s also Algerian, Turkish or Pakistani.

That generalization is, I think, often a part of what people are doing when they say they don’t like Middle Eastern music: they’re confusing being bored or confused by one corner of Middle Eastern music with not liking it, period.

And you may be wrong about the branching of bellydance – students can now get very solid instruction and develop a craft in a largely non-Middle Eastern context, using music from all over the place. I believe there are now enough sub-genres of bellydance that you needn’t have deep knowledge of Middle Eastern music to become a good dancer.

 

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I’m not advanced enough in my personal studies to get as involved with the study and appreciation of Middle Eastern music as others on this board, but in the interest of making myself as well-rounded a dancer as possible, I “mind choreograph” to any music with a beat. I can’t do half the stuff I think up, but it’s there. I’ve used Egyptian, Turkish, Turkish-Kurd, Pakistani, Middle Eastern-inspired tribal fusion groups, Irish bagpipes, Dirty South rap, Romani, trip hop, mid-tempo Euro-pop, stoner college music, rave/techno etc… You can take an identical piece of movement, and when applied to an Egyptian saidi vice a Dirty South rap song, you’re talking about two different performances.

I think a lot of people, myself included, are uncomfortable with the “della” asthetic of “caberet” belly dance, prefering the duende style of ATS and ATS-inspired fusion. Personally I think this is cultural, as many feminist Westerners might find della a little too flirtatious to be “serious” art (which is inherently un-feminist, but what’s life without some uncomfortable irony). Anyway, I think a lot of folks take the discomfort too far and automatically write off all Middle Eastern music simply because they are uncomfortable with or do not care for the della performance asthetic it traditionally accompanies. They’re forgetting that much tribal choreography is set to some sort of Middle Eastern music.

Either way, I agree, belly dancers need to be familiar with all varieties of Middle Eastern music. Dance movement comes from emotionally based expression of music, but how can you understand why we drop a hip on a downbeat or chest lift on an upbeat if you don’t even know the basis for evolution? Think back to “A Chorus Line”…Broadway jazz dancers were tossed out on their butts if they didn’t have prior ballet knowledge. They didn’t have to love it, or even excel at it, but by God they had to know it. Same concept.

 

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I concur, Asharah. I wrote a bit about it last year in my post “Does the music make the dancer?”, here:
http://www.doubletakebellydance.com/2010/09/does-music-make-dancer.html
I agree–if you don’t like ME music, perhaps bellydance isn’t really where your heart lies fully and truly. Just something to consider.

I also feel that music INFORMS your movement. The more ME music you dance to, the more ME your movements will tend to be. As someone pointed out above, when you dance exclusively to ME music (which is not what I am saying here, but as a for instance), there are some moves that seem offensive or counter to the music you are dancing to. *Isn’t that the POINT*? :) By dancing to Middle Eastern music, the dance you will do will be shaped by that music, and the choices you make will come directly from the way the music inspires your movement. I kinda talked about that in my blog post here: http://www.doubletakebellydance.com/2010/09/more-on-music-traditional-music-opens.html

(not trying to spam you with my blog posts, but so much of what was said here resonates with what I was musing on and writing about just last year)

And Leslie, I would tend toward ATS as well, but remember ATS can be choreographed! And when you do, there is some movement variations and staging options you can use that are different from the usual improvisational structure we usually must adhere to; so if an ATS dancer really did Asharah’s assignment, I think it would really reveal some creative avenues in an ATS dancer that she may not have otherwise had an opportunity to explore. Sounds like a fun exercise to me!

 

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I agree wholeheartedly with you. I will not allow American or any other kind of music to be used in my studio. It has to be Middle Eastern I really love Lebanese Music but use from other countries in the Middle East. That does not mean we cannot do fusion but it comes from a point of education not just because you cannot dance to Middle Eastern music. It should be good and not confusion. See so much of that these days. People just do not take the time to study and learn. A great article.

 

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Hi Asharah! Former student of yours here.

I’m so glad you posted this, because I was just having this argument with a close friend and fellow dancer… last week or so.

I think that in the West we often want everything to be compartmentalized into neat boxes that have a purpose or benefit that can be easily explained — so “learning to dance” becomes learning to move your body in certain ways, building up technique, etc. People don’t remember that the rhythms are actually part of the dance, and if you don’t know those rhythms… to me that’s way more essential to being able to say “I’m a belly dancer” than, say, being able to layer a shimmy on an undulation.

 

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Hi Asharah,

First off, thanks for letting me (a stranger outside of your circle) spam your blog with my random comments, still! I do appreciate it as these are very much the kinds of discussions I am dieing to have more than a lot of the time, but no one truly wants to discuss in great depth! So secondly and most importantly, thank you for blogging! (I will make sure to have a long drawn out discussion with the bf when he gets home, hehehehe)

Let me start off with QUICKLY explaining my background a little – I’ve moved around A LOT and spent time with different cultural groups within those countries (i.e. immersed in my Eastern Arab friends’ world in context of US). I spent all my life wondering how to get people to be more receptive to different kinds, styles, genres of music (cultures, languages, etc). As a person obsessed with music (I guess I could say that I got into the dance because of the music), I will spend hours and hours listening to the same genre and different groups within that genre to gain a better understanding of it, starting from popular to obscure. I’ll do research, listen to everything those artists have put out, then put it in relevance to the era it comes out… You get the idea. But it’s not just pure research, there are memories and people and situations attached to those songs and trying to understand, try and try again despite being out of context (ie. Experiencing the counterculture of the 1960s)

I’ve had lengthy discussions, studying, reading, researching etc. trying so hard to figure out how to make people more receptive to certain styles or types of music (i.e. techno, Western, flamenco, IDM, etc.) and if I were to explain it loosely (will have to look to see if there has been a dissertation or study on this) it seems to be through exposure until it’s imprinted, familiar and loved. In addition the receptivity is increased when the person introducing it has a greater connection with the group. We also have to take into account the receptiveness of the person and their brain to creating new synapses! Perhaps just like a different culture, country – it takes awhile to do so and be integrated. I don’t know anything for sure, and admit I could be very wrong in these ideas as it will definitely not apply to everyone!

I’ll try to find that article on how music that’s offbeat i.e. IDM affects people who have never heard it & surrealism’s affects on the brain. Somehow think it’s related. But I’ve over-stayed my welcome so for next time perhaps! ? Cheers!

Kitt

 

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I just published an article about this in the current issue of Zaghareet! magazine. I compared it to wanting to be a country line dancer but hating country, or wanting to dance to hip-hop but hating rap/hip hop. Its a no brainer to me.

 

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I couldn’t agree with you more. Especially in this age of rampant fusion, and I do include ATS as a fusion. There is something so worthwhile about hearing something like Oum Kalthoum and “getting it” and it takes awhile to get it. It really does, it’s not what our Western ears are used to hearing. I do think that the dance and the music goes hand in hand. Then when you take it into your interpretation of belly dance you can really go for it…in response to a choreography exercise, I AGREE completely. I do ATS improv format, but I think when you’re wrapping your head around new music, planning out a few things, choreographing a few bars, helps when you want to improvise with it down the road. It’s a great exercise, even more so when you’re using a folkloric traditional piece that has sudden changes or skips a few bars making you on time but off phrase. Kudos on a great article!

 

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[…] came across an interesting post by my friend Asharah entitled, “I am a bellydancer, but…”. It is is a thought-provoking piece that ends with some really excellent music exercises for […]

 

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I agree with the original article by Asharah: we need to respect the culture that our art form comes from. There’s a huge selection to choose from and surely something can appeal. I would extend the same arguments to playing zills: if you can’t play them, you ain’t a pro!

I’m amused by the discussion of ATS and choreo. Just a quick point out that we ‘old-school’ dancers don’t choreograph; in fact, it was one of the things that turned me off of Tribal in the first place! Even ATS was just too stylized. However, choreography is useful even for me in two situations: when there’s a group involved and, as in the example in the article, when trying to get your head around a piece of music.

 

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[…] you haven’t already go read this excellent post by Asharah about the relationship of belly dancers and middle eastern […]

 

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Here’s a slightly different perspective as a (classically trained but now folk) musician, bellydancer, and swing dancer: I’m a swing dancer, but I don’t love swing music. And here’s what I mean by that: When I started swing dancing, I thought big band music was amazing and listened to it all the time. A few years later, the big band and vintage swing just didn’t do it for me anymore – to this day, I’d rather listen to it than dance to it. It ceased to inspire any dancing for me. However, anytime I listen to blues, I want to dance. Depending on which teacher you talk to, blues dancing either was the foundation of lindy hop or vice versa, so the dances and music are very closely related. When I taught swing dancing classes I used to specifically play a fair chunk of non-swing music (hip hop, blues, even an interesting rock or folk song) so that students would learn that they didn’t have to confine themselves to one genre of music – if you listen carefully, you can swing dance to a lot of different types of music. A subset of dancers shares a similar philosophy to me – the others don’t want to dance to anything other than swing. I’m classically trained as a musician, but I stopped playing classical music – I’ve built on that training to turn it into something different, and now play folk music instead. But I couldn’t do what I do now without that classical background, even though I deliberately do a lot of things that a classical singer and pianist should not do.

So I can understand a bellydancer saying something similar about Middle Eastern music (which I do like dancing and listening to in general, as long as it’s not synth-heavy, bad pop). I think all dancers could use some familiarity with the music – and knowing it well only helps – but I don’t think you *have* to dance to it to be a good bellydancer. It may just not inspire you.

 

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