The Big “O”: Orientalism and Belly Dance
Disclaimer: This blog post is certainly not meant to stifle anyone’s creative process. It is means to bring awareness to a complicated and difficult history, and to increase my readership’s knowledge and appreciation of the Middle East and the many lenses through which the West has viewed it. I also apologize in advance for its rambling as well as the fact that there is no way one can explore the complexity of this topic in one blog entry.
This morning I searched Pinterest for “Vintage Belly Dance”, hoping to find images of dancers from the 1940s-1970s. What I mostly found, however, was late 19th-century photographs of women in fantasy Middle Eastern costumes, such as Mata Hari and her contemporaries. These images were labeled “Vintage Belly Dance”, but while they are indeed vintage, these women weren’t belly dancers. They were playing dress-up for a camera, or, like Mata Hari, they might have been courtesans (a fancy term for a high-class sex worker). Then I started thinking about the influences from which contemporary belly dancers, particularly those who associate with the tribal fusion stylization, pull for costuming and performance, and how to be informed practitioners of our art, that we could consider the context of these influences.
There are two ways to interpret the term “Orientalism”. The first is that of the art movement by European, mostly French, painters of the late 19th century, who specialized in “Oriental” (Eastern, mostly Ottoman, Middle Eastern, and North African) subjects. European men painted the majority of these works, and while some painted mostly accurate scenes of what they observed on their travels, they also superimposed their idea of what the Middle East should or could be. Sometimes they painted what they imagined to be true, such as the interiors of harems and female bath houses, which were and are realms from which men are forbidden.
The second, and more politically-charged interpretation is how the late scholar Edward Said used it in his seminal work Orientalism (1978). He described orientalism as a “fundamentally… political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.” (Orientalism, p. 204). His argument is that by simplifying the Orient (for him, this meant mostly the Arab world), the imperialist western nations were able to exert political influence and label Arabs as “other”, uncivilized, and immoral. We see vestiges of this sentiment in stereotypes about the Arab world in how male Arabs (and Muslims) are labelled either as violent terrorists and/or “backwards” and technically-challenged religious extremists, and female Arabs are depicted as nubile slaves and harem girls who lounge around in waiting for their sultan or as sultry femme fatales who use their exotic wiles to tempt unsuspecting Western men (such as in several James Bond movies). (Parenthetical aside: reference to Said’s book does not mean I agree wholeheartedly with the entirety of it.)
So what does this have to do with us?
Many belly dancers want to learn how to dance, perform in a beautiful costume, and feel good about their selves and their bodies, goals which I believe are positive and innocuous, at least on the surface. However, belly dance is not just a movement vocabulary or a path to greater self-esteem. It is a dance from a region with a gnarled and complicated history with Western Europe and the United States, and part of our education in this dance must include an awareness and, at the very least, basic knowledge about those relations. As non-Middle Eastern people performing a Middle Eastern dance, we have cultural responsibilities.
Here’s a very brief (and terribly simplified) snippet of history: Many Westerners (the “West” for the sake of this blog post being Great Britain, France, most of western Europe, and the United States) at the turn of the 20th century from which orientalist paintings come and the many vintage photos I found on Pinterest viewed the Middle East as a culture that was technologically behind, inferior, and unable to rule itself. This notion was not entirely unfounded, albeit exaggerated, as it was around this time that the Ottoman Empire was gasping its last breath and was known as the “Sick Old Man of Europe”. The Arab- and Muslim-ruled world had also gradually lost political, philosophical, military, and scientific influence beginning in the late 15th century as Western Europe ushered in the periods of the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment. In the early 20th century, as the Ottoman Empire was increasingly unable to rule its vast territory, both Great Britain and France colonized the Middle East, taking control of North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. They arbitrarily divided the land between them (and Russia) under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which lead to the current borders and countries. (I highly recommend David Fromkin’s book A Peace to End All Peace for an accessible, yet in-depth, history of the creation of the modern Middle East.)
Now, personally, I don’t find anything wrong with finding inspiration in these paintings and photographs. Many of them are beautiful, otherworldly, overflowing with costume and fabric ideas for our performances. I mean, who wouldn’t want the belt medallions or headdress in Comerre’s “Les Coquelicots” (see painting on the right)? What I wish for dancers to avoid, however, is taking inspiration from this era blindly, without giving thought or consideration to the political climate at that time, the growing tensions between the imperialist states and the Middle East, or the current tensions between the “West” and the Arab world. We should strive to avoid cultural appropriation, educating ourselvses on the origins of these works of art and the world from which the painters and photographers came.
So, how do we avoid orientalism in belly dance? I’m not sure we can, nor do I feel like I’m the one with an answer. Belly dance, whether in its “cabaret” (or “oriental”) or tribal styles are inherently a melange of influences from both East and West, in different degrees. Some scholars have accused Arab belly dancers themselves of self-orientalism. The two-piece beaded costume so essential to oriental/cabaret belly dance is a Western invention that dancers and producers in the Middle East adopted and transformed as their own. Tribal and fusion styles pick and choose what they like out of Middle Eastern and South Asian dance and costuming to create something inherently new, while, I think, leaving out the aspects of the dance and culture that could be inconvenient or troubling (like, say, dancing to and understanding Arabic music). Practioners of belly dance both in the West and the Middle East have imposed their own fantasies and interpretations of the “orient” on this dance; we have been borrowing back and forth for so long now that it’s impossible to discern from whence each influence derives. They have been imitating us imitating them for decades. These are traditions and aspects of our dance that are, to some extent, unavoidable. What we can avoid is ignorance and insensitivity.