On ‘modernity’ in bellydance

Just a little rant for a Tuesday morning, on a subject that just keeps coming up… ๐Ÿ˜‰

Westernised fusion dance is not “more modern” than Middle Eastern bellydance. But I often see it described as being so in the dance community – ‘traditional’ bellydance vs. ‘modern’ fusion – as if dance in the Middle East was static and old-fashioned and needed Westerners to come in and ‘modernise’ it

This points to an underlying set of subconscious ideas about East vs. West being traditional, ancient, unchanging, vs. modern, enlightened and dynamic, or in other words, Orientalism. It’s not surprising that it’s present in the dance community, since it permeates our culture as a whole, but it’s still important to be aware of it and point it out and try to catch ourselves before we do it.

In fact, bellydance is a living art form in the Middle East. Modern Egyptian or Turkish or Lebanese bellydance is, well, modern. We don’t need to change or fuse it in order for it to be modern, because it already is. Rachel Brice, say, is no more modern than, say, Dina. And Safinaz is arguably more modern than either!

This isn’t to say fusion is bad, but please don’t fall into the trap of thinking fusion is the only part of the bellydance world that’s alive and evolving, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The only difference is that fusion dance evolves in the West, driven by Western dancers, whilst Middle Eastern bellydance evolves in the hands of the amazing dancers working in Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul. Those of us who dance a Middle Eastern style in the West have to accept that the dance of another culture can’t be all about us, by its very nature. Western dancers aren’t completely excluded from becoming innovators or trendsetters, but they generally have to become popular and successful in the home countries of the dance for this to happen – American dancers Leila Farid and Luna seem like they might fall into this category, for example, as might Scottish dancer Lorna. The Argentinian dancer Asmahan also springs to mind. It’s a high bar, for sure, but that’s to be expected when you are an outsider in another culture’s art form.

So when dancers say that fusion is ‘more modern’, or ‘evolving’, I think on some level what they really mean is that those styles are evolving in a way that they are in touch with and more likely to be able to influence. Which is fair enough. But it risks writing off the dance that I love as fuddy-duddy and boring, and I am not going to quietly accept that. So remember, just because you aren’t aware of or contributing to the latest developments in the Cairo dance scene, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. Art evolves, yes. And it evolves in Egypt just as much as it does anywhere else!

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9 thoughts on “On ‘modernity’ in bellydance

    • Glad you enjoyed it ๐Ÿ™‚ I think I’ve said basically the same thing quite a few times now in discussions on Bhuz or on facebook, so I decided it was time to write a ‘definitive’ version and stop reinventing the wheel every time it comes up!

  1. I completely agree.

    I think sometimes the word ‘traditional’ can be used to mean ‘oriental/cabaret/restaurant/etc.’ when talking to non-bellydance audiences. I sometimes use it because I am a fusion dancer who can still do ME style bellydance, and I will sometimes say ‘traditional’ as a shorthand for that when talking to a GP audience, because non-bellydancers don’t always know the vocab that bellydancers use, or that there is a lot of discussion about that vocab (like the differences between what the word ‘cabaret’ means in different parts of the world….)

    I have noticed however that you can get some people who are from the Middle East originally, but have settled in the West for a while, and get quite sentimental/nostalgic about what they consider to be the ‘best time’ in Middle Eastern dance and really emphasise that era in their own teaching. I guess it’s a bit like my mum’s musical tastes not having changed since the 1970s….

    • Yeah, the terminology is difficult. I do try to avoid saying ‘traditional’ to mean ‘Middle Eastern’, but it definitely slips out sometimes. I prefer to specify a region, era, style, dancer, or something, if possible, whether that is ‘Middle Eastern’, ‘Modern Egyptian’, ‘Vintage American’ or whatever. I also don’t like describing dance as ‘cabaret’ or ‘restaurant’ really – it doesn’t really mean anything, style-wise, it’s disconnected from culture, and it feels a bit tawdry. I sometimes dance in restaurants, but I’d be a bit upset if someone defined my style as ‘restaurant’ bellydance, when I’m trying hard to present a decent approximation of actual Egyptian dance.

      i know what you mean about the dancers who get stuck in a certain era. It seems like a fairly natural process that once dancers reach a certain point in their careers, they will settle on a certain style and tend to stick with it, especially once they retire from professional performance. As in academia and stuff, I think maybe change in dance usually comes from up and coming performers developing their styles, and not from more established dancers changing what they do substantially once they have settled on an artistic direction. Maybe it is different in TF at the moment because it’s a younger genre?

  2. Good post. This dance can never be old or fuddy duddy imo even when some of us are approaching that status after 30+ years of dancing. What I like is that I can still learn and re-invent myself as a dancer without using fusion because there is so much to learn.

    And I just want to point out that Leila Farid et al had some quite good forerunners in dancers/ethnologists like Shareen el Safy and Sahra Saeeda Kent (in the States at least, I am sure you can add others from the UK and Australia). Their work is what propelled many of us into the Egyptian style back in the 90’s

    • Thanks for your reply, Catherine ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t know as much about Shareen el Safy and Sahra Kent as I probably should, although I have certainly heard of both of their work. And yes, I can think of some British dancers who have lived and worked in Cairo too from a slightly older generation. There is always so much more to learn! Even though I feel like the 90s wasn’t that long ago in some ways, I was actually still at primary school then, and I realise I don’t know a whole lot about the history of the dance in that period.

  3. Thank you. I completely agree. And it always rubs me the wrong way when some dancers who have a Western modern and ballet dance background come into belly dance and try to “improve it” with their Western choreographic structures and aesthetic, and look down on the folk dance influence in belly dance as dull or inferior. Sure, modern dance/belly dance fusion can be lovely, but Western dances are NOT superior or more evolved!! I grew-up doing modern and ballet too, and I LOVE that belly dance isn’t like those dance forms. I also majored in dance in college, and continued to choreograph belly dances for classes, even though my professors looked down their noses at me for it.

  4. Excellent post! I find the “Dance evolves!” claim irritating on two levels, firstly because of the way it is assumed to only happen in the West, and secondly because of the often implied superiority of this “evolved” dance. Evolution does not imply improvement, but since people have been making this mistake ever since Darwin’s time I don’t think they’re going to stop now. Gosh, who would have thought my year of studying the history of science would be relevant to bellydance? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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