Beyoncé vs. Oum Kalthoum – a bellydance storm in a teacup?

A bust of Oum Kalthoum at the Cairo opera house.

A bust of Oum Kalthoum at the Cairo opera house.

There’s a video that has been doing the rounds in the bellydance community this week from an old Beyoncé show, where a short section of music from Oum Kalthoum’s “Enta Omri” is sampled during an exotic-dance inspired dance routine featuring rather a lot of bare bottoms. And lots of bellydancers are acting outraged by this, calling for boycotts of Beyoncé, slut-shaming her, demanding she apologise, etc.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t enjoy the video and found it quite upsetting because it was so far removed from the original meaning of the song, a song which I love and have performed to in the past. However, some of the angry reactions from dancers have been totally over the top and really not OK. Calling someone a slut or similar is never acceptable, and it should go without saying that racist remarks are never acceptable. Also, we non-Arab bellydancers are not the owners of Arab culture; nor are we the main injured parties if it is disrespected or misrepresented. I have seen people saying this video is “offensive to bellydancers”… Nope.

I’d totally understand if Egyptian/Arab people are upset by how this dance routine misrepresents their culture, and how inappropriately it references a beloved cultural icon. But bellydancers offended because it might somehow make people associate us with sex workers (which is unlikely, given that the video doesn’t reference bellydance in any way)? Nope. It’s not about us. And the attitude of disdain or disgust for sex workers in many parts of the bellydance community, revealed in the comments about this video, is also not OK – we should be working to stop the shaming or objectification of women in all walks of life, not just trying to protect ourselves from the consequences of misogynistic attitudes about ‘appropriate’ female behaviour by perpetuating them towards others. We can critique objectifying imagery without using misogynistic slurs.

Excellent advice for life.

Excellent advice for life.

As far as we dancers go – if we want to honour Oum Kalthoum, a better way of doing it, in my opinion, would be to introduce her music to our dance friends/audiences/students, and do it justice as best as we possibly can. Not get our knickers in a twist about a tasteless bit of sampling that won’t really have affected anyone’s awareness of Oum Kalthoum, let alone their awareness of Egyptian dance. It’s a bit jarring to see such “heads must roll!” outrage from the bellydance community, when this is a community where even dancing to Middle Eastern music at all sometimes feels like a minority pursuit, and advocating for it makes you the ‘bellydance police’ or a spoilsport ‘purist’ in the eyes of many.

A dear friend of mine danced in a show recently that was actually organised in honour of Oum Kalthoum, and she was the only dancer, apart from the featured guest performers and the organiser, who chose to dance to one of Oum Kalthoum’s songs. And in my own experience, many bellydancers are not at all familiar with Oum Kalthoum or her music. That, to me, is far more sad and upsetting than this Beyonce clip, even though the clip did give me a first reaction of ‘Aaargh WTF!’.

So if you want to see Oum Kalthoum’s music and legacy respected, start in your own dance community. Listen to her songs – the full recordings, not just versions rearranged for dance. Learn the words. Learn to appreciate the musical genius of the Lady herself and her musicians and composers. Perform to the best ‘for dance’ recordings you can find, and tell people what the song is and what it means. Play her music in your classes, if you teach, even if it’s just during the stretches. Encourage others to listen. Set an example. This music is incredibly powerful, and it deserves to be heard and enjoyed – but nobody benefits from an online collective tantrum about a video from a tour that happened several years ago.

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7 thoughts on “Beyoncé vs. Oum Kalthoum – a bellydance storm in a teacup?

  1. Pingback: Critique vs. Shaming | Kamrah

  2. Reblogged this on ankimiranda and commented:
    Not slut shaming Beyonce, just don’t agree with her interpretation, not crazy about her voice either. I just hope the belly dancers around the world, especially over these regions where I live (central and latin America) don’t get ideas about the costume and other expressions of the belly dancing, as it’s overly sexualized here already and often it’s painful to watch. I do agree with one thing, Oum’s songs should be played (in the class and performance settings) more and any of the old classical pieces from the past. Oriental dancers, belly dancers, Egyptian dancer. arabic dancers etc. what ever you do, just keep it classy.

    • The point is though that Beyonce is not actually really interpreting ‘Enta Omri’ – the sample is only a few seconds. And the video is clearly not intended to be bellydance, or to be associated in any way with bellydance. So I don’t think it’s any more likely to influence what bellydancers do than any other pop video is.

      I agree that the inappropriate over-sexualisation of bellydance is a bad thing (although that does *not* mean I’m OK with the way that Western bellydancers sometimes condemn poor, working class dancers in Egypt for dancing in revealing costumes or in a sexy way, when it is their only way to make a living) – I just don’t think this Beyonce video will have any effect on it one way or the other, to be honest.

      Also, you might be interested to know that it doesn’t work to shorten Oum Kalthoum’s name to just Oum. This is because ‘Oum Kalthoum’ is just a first name, not a first name and family name. It is actually a nickname she was given by her family as a girl – her legal name was Fatima Ibrahim es-Sayyid el-Beltagi. If you’re interested in learning more abotu Oum Kalthoum’s life and musical career, by the way, this book is absolutely brilliant 🙂 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Voice-Egypt-Egyptian-Twentieth-Ethnomusicology/dp/0226136124/

  3. I watched the video and to be honest I was a bit shocked but only because I know the meaning of the song. I think those belly-dancers who are “slut-shaming” Beyonce are coming from a place of “privilege” and might want to consider this fits into the “bellydancing is for everyone” ethos. That being said, the video is not bellydancing and is not meant to represent bellydancing. As an African-American, I am only familiar with Oum Kalthoum because I am a bellydancer and I want to understand the music. Yes most music today is sampled from other sources and more than likely Beyonce’s crowd sampled it from Shakira without knowing the original source of the music.

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