The great thing about learning an art form from another culture is that it can be a gateway to appreciating a culture other than your own. It can help you to see the world from other perspectives, and learn to see people from that culture as three-dimensional individuals, instead of through the stereotypes we grew up surrounded by. When this happens, and we break down our own barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, I believe that in a small way, we make the world a better place.
Whenever discussions of cultural appropriation come up, in the bellydance world, “it’s not appropriation, it’s appreciation!” is one of the first defences dancers reach for. And if that’s true, that’s great. But as with anything, we shouldn’t just assume it’s all fine and continue on our merry way without looking any closer. When we say this, are we really deeply appreciating these cultures and developing understanding? Or just borrowing superficial things from other cultures because they look pretty, and then dressing it up as a noble act so we can feel good about ourselves?
The answer, of course, is “it depends”.
It depends on how we see the dance, how we engage with it, and how we engage with the culture it’s a part of.
So here are a few questions to think about…
- The dance itself – This might seem like a no-brainer, but do you enjoy watching Middle Eastern* dance, and seek opportunities to watch good dance? Not just your friends dancing at haflas, but professional-quality shows, DVDs, YouTube videos? Do you enjoy watching videos of dancers from the countries of origin? In other words, do you appreciate bellydance itself as an art? Or do you find it boring unless you’re participating?
- The cultural connection – Do you see bellydance as a cultural dance rooted in certain parts of the world, that comes from the social and performance dances of real people in those places? I would argue that for bellydancing to be a form of cultural appreciation, this is essential. Do you think bellydance is any dance that uses a certain set of basic torso isolations? Or do you think it is more than that – including ways of interpreting music, of relating movements to each other, of communicating with your audience, that are all deeply entwined with the cultures the dance comes from?
- The music – Do you genuinely love listening to Middle Eastern music, for its own sake, and not just because you feel you ‘have to’ listen to it as a bellydancer? Getting into a new type of music is rarely an instant or easy process. It takes time and it takes patience. And yet, so many bellydancers will say that they dance to Western music because Arabic music “just doesn’t speak to them”. Well, to be honest, Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram don’t speak to me, either, and nor do a lot of the ‘recorded for dancers’ instrumentals. A lot of pop music in any culture will be bland, but few Egyptians will take you seriously as an appreciator of their culture if you say you just don’t ‘get’ Umm Kalthum, for example. You need to be willing to dig deeper, persevere, and give things a second chance that you didn’t enjoy the first time round. I have written about this before, if you are interested 🙂
- The history – How much do you know about the history of this dance form, and where did you learn it? Do you value reliable, first-hand sources and evidence, or are you happy to believe origin myths based on wishful thinking and Orientalist stereotypes? Shira wrote a great article on identifying reliable historical information, which I do suggest you read if you haven’t already seen it, as well as an article examining popular bellydance myths. If you want to appreciate Middle Eastern cultures, it’s important to look for the reality of those cultures, and how this dance developed as a part of them – and not let the real people who shaped the dance get lost in a cloud of romantic fantasies about the past.
- The cultural background – Do you take an interest in aspects of Middle Eastern culture, language, history and current affairs that aren’t directly related to dance? Do you read books or blogs about Middle Eastern history, arts, pop culture, or daily life, or by Middle Eastern writers? Keep up to date with news from the region? Visit exhibitions of Islamic art when they happen locally, or go to concerts or cultural events even when they are not directly aimed at or organised by bellydancers? Watch films or documentaries? Or even take language classes? Of course, I don’t expect anyone to have the time and money to do all these things at once, but I’d expect anyone with a real appreciation of these cultures to have at least taken an interest in a few of them.
Now, I don’t know what your answers to those questions are. And I’m not judging you as a person or as a dancer if you answered ‘no’ to any of them. They are just for you to reflect upon, and work out where you stand (and where you’d like to stand).
It’s possible to be a beautiful, entertaining dancer without being very interested in Middle Eastern cultures – but if that’s the case, you do need to be aware that claiming to ‘appreciate’ those cultures purely by participating in bellydance may ring hollow. So when the question comes up of if/when it’s ethical for us to represent another culture, as inevitably it will, you will need to find your own way to square your involvement with the dance with respect for the original cultures and for the people who dance this dance because they grew up with it.
It’s not a question of Tribal vs. Oriental either, because I know dancers in both camps who are seriously knowledgeable about the dance’s origins, and also those who move beautifully but do not have much interest in the deeper roots or wider culture. In either case it’s up to you to think carefully about this stuff, and work out your own answers.
And of course, it’s normal for your level of cultural appreciation to change throughout your life as a dancer. Many of us come to the dance with little knowledge of the Middle East, and holding some questionable attitudes about people from that region that we’ve picked up from our popular culture. The wonderful thing is that the curiosity inspired by learning a cultural dance can change that. If you’ve only been dancing for a short time, please don’t feel put off by this post. It takes time to learn and develop your understanding, and it’s OK to learn at your own pace, as long as you’re interested and open to learning. Think of these questions as suggestions for your dance education outside of class (although a good teacher will also include some of these things in class).
To finish, here are a few great learning resources:
- A Trade Like Any Other – female singers and dancers in Egypt, by Karin Niewkerk. I cannot recommend this book enough!
- Shira.net – an incredible wealth of well-researched information and essential reading for dancers, from history to song lyrics…
- You Asked Aunt Rocky – Advice and answers about Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Shaabi, by Morocco. Loads of interesting information in here, much of it based on Morocco’s own fieldwork.
- Here’s my list of recommended online resources
- Cultural exchange and cultural appropriation – a really good blog post on the differences between the two.
I could go on and list a load more books, since I’m a total nerd about this stuff, but I’ll leave you with those for now 🙂
* I’m using the term ‘Middle East’ here as shorthand for “Middle East, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean”, which is a very long phrase to type repeatedly. I’m not aware of any concise term that actually refers to all the regions from which this dance originates, unfortunately.