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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Demystifying Muwashshahat!

Bellydance show with a live band

Rachael dancing with the Mazaj ensemble

I’ve been geeking out about Arabic music a lot in the last year, including listening to a lot of different things, reading loads of books, and even learning to play the oud. And in that time, I’ve realised that there’s a bit of misunderstanding of muwashshahat (singular muwashshah) in the bellydance world.

What we learn in the bellydance world…

The standard view of muwashshahat in the bellydance world goes something like this:

Muwashshahat are songs that come from mediaeval Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus), and have survived to the present day. They use the 10/8 Samai Thaqil rhythm. Originally, court dances may have been done to them, but nobody really knows what these dances looked like. These dances were creatively reimagined in the 20th century by Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, and this is how we dance to muwashshahat today.

I’ve come to realise that this information is not exactly wrong as such, but it is very incomplete, and somewhat misleading.

So, what actually are muwashshahat?

Andalusian Roots

The term muwashshahat actually refers to a poetic form, which originally became popular in al-Andalus.

There are several musical traditions based on this poetic form. These include the North African ‘Andalusi Nuba’ tradition (which we don’t tend to dance to, and which I don’t know a great deal about), and the Syrian/Egyptian wasla tradition which incorporates muwashshah poems set to music, along with other instrumental and lyrical genres.

Musical tradition

The pieces we use for dance come from the Syrian/Egyptian tradition. Some of these use old poetry from al-Andalus, whilst some use more recently composed poems in the muwashshah form. However, the musical compositions themselves are not from al-Andalus. For example, Lamma Bada is the best known muwashshah. The lyrics are thought to be very old, but the melody used today was composed in Egypt in the 19th century (see 004 – Sama‘ – Lammā badā yatathanna – AMAR Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research for more info on this song, and some very early recordings). The compositional style was influenced by Turkish instrumental forms during the Ottoman period, particularly by the Turkish samai.

Lots of Egyptian muwashshahat were composed in the 19th century during the nahda or Egyptian rennaisance, and some in the early 20th century too. The great Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish wrote several, for example. They are an important part of the Egyptian musical tradition, especially before the advent of the ughniyah or ‘long song’ format of Oum Kalthoum et al. Legendary singer and composer Mohammed Abdelwahab recorded many muwashshahat during his early career. More recently, a huge number of muwashshahat have been recorded by the Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri.

Rhythms

A variety of rhythms are used in muwashshahat – 10/8 samai thaqil is certainly popular, but it’s not the only one by any means. Other muwashshah rhythms include familiar favourites like masmoudi kebir, as well as many based on longer rhythmic cycles which are almost never used in dance. There’s a fairly exhaustive list of these rhythms here, including audio clips – Maqam World – Muwashshah Rhythms.

It’s also worth noting that they are not all slow, and some are actually very lively. Even Lamma Bada, which is often played very slowly in recent recordings, was originally far more upbeat!

So, what about the dancing?

As I mentioned previously, almost all bellydancers associate muwashshahat with the dance style created by Mahmoud Reda in the 1980s. This style is refined, elegant and balletic, with hypnotic spins and arabesques, and as with most of Reda’s dances, almost no movement of the torso. Farida Fahmy, principal dancer in the Reda troupe, wrote this about the Reda muwashshahat style:

In these dances he was not restricted to any specific temporal reference or dance tradition. This gave him a wider range of movement and choreographic possibilities. In his choreographies, Mahmoud Reda relied on his artistic imagination and how the music inspired him, as well as his expertise and rich repertoire of movement vocabulary that he had accumulated for many years.

We can therefore see that it is, essentially, a fusion style, albeit one developed in Egypt for an Egyptian audience.

However, muwashshahat were, at one point, the popular music of their day, and it’s reasonable to assume that dancers would have performed to them in the 19th century (although there were other types of music more associated with dance, e.g. light songs in dance rhythms, and the tahmila, a structured improvisational style). Egyptian films, especially when portraying 19th century scenes, sometimes show dancers performing to muwashshahat in styles not influenced by Reda.

For example, see the opening sequence of this 1960s film about the life of Bamba Kashar:

Or this scene in the 1960s film adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel ‘Palace Walk’ (Bayn al-Qasrayn), set in early 20th century Cairo, and showing a ‘sahra’ or musical gathering at the home of a professional entertainer/courtesan (the first song is a muwashshah in a 6/8 rhythm):


Or this clip of Leila Mourad singing the muwashshah ‘Mala al-Kasat’ with a chorus of oriental dancers in two-piece ‘bellydance’ costumes:

So, if you choose to dance to muwashshahat, it’s legitimate to use the Reda style, but it’s not mandatory. Reda’s interpretation was a fanciful re-imagining, rather than a historical reconstruction. There’s certainly precedent for dancers interpreting these beautiful pieces of music in their own styles, and so I think there’s also a place both for trying to recreate the style of the late 19th century, and for applying your own original interpretation using your knowledge of present-day Egyptian dance, as well as for the Reda style.

Further reading

A dancer in search of Tarab

This post is part book review, part essay, and part personal reflection.

This week, I finished reading the excellent “Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab” by A.J. Racy. This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time, and I was finally spurred on to buy myself a copy by a discussion with one of my close friends on what makes singing emotionally moving, or makes it inspire a state we might describe as tarab.

Tarab (طرب) is a concept that has no exact translation in English, but which describes a state of enchantment, rapture or ‘musical ecstasy’, inspired by certain musical performances. Many bellydancers are aware of this concept, and many talk about achieving a state of tarab during performance, but I suspect that few (myself included) fully understand it. I have been deeply interested in the experience of tarab since first learning of it some years ago – I have always been fascinated by and drawn to ‘mystical’ experiences and other states of consciousness, a personality trait which I am told is common in dancers, although it doesn’t always sit comfortably with my own rationalist worldview.

Reading “Making Music in the Arab World”, I had several “Aha!” moments regarding the nature of tarab, and why certain music makes me ‘melt’ whilst other recordings leave me unmoved. But I was also left with the feeling that I was barely scratching the surface of an incredibly complex and nuanced musical world.

Eek, Maqamat!

Although I have a good working knowledge of Arabic rhythms (which I now know are called iqa’at (ايقاعات)), as is essential for a good dancer, I have only the faintest passing acquaintance with the Arabic modes, or maqamat (مقامات). This isn’t a problem as a dancer, per se (in fact, one teacher for whom I have a great deal of respect, and who shall remain nameless, once poked fun at me for over-analysing when I asked a question about maqamat in class).

Understanding maqamat would be unlikely to make any material difference to my dancing. But I now believe that not understanding them limits the level at which I am able to appreciate or enjoy classical Arabic music at the moment – and the more deeply I can feel and connect with music, the more that my dance is able to ‘flow’ without conscious input. Plus, dance aside, I would like to experience this music as fully as I’m able to, purely for my own enjoyment.

Oud (image credit: Wikipedia)

Oud (image credit: Wikipedia)

Racy explains that for both musicians and tarab listeners, a deeply internalised familiarity with the maqamat means that each maqam has its own feeling or ‘colour’, and its own distinct ability to create a feeling of tarab, or in the case of musicians, saltanah (سلطانه), which is a state of musical inspiration described by Racy as ‘modal ecstasy’, and which seems similar to what we might describe as a flow state. An educated listener (i.e. not me, at present…) can appreciate when a maqam is explored by the musician in a satisfying or clever way, when an unexpected note or phrase is used, or when the musician successfully modulates to another maqam – and can apparently thus derive great enjoyment and tarab from a good taqsim (solo improvisation).

In this area, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot. As it happens, I recently decided that my new challenge for this year was going to be to learn to play the oud (Arabic lute), since for a long time I played classical guitar, and I miss being able to create music as well as dancing to it. So now, my determination to do so is doubled, as I now see that learning to play and recognise maqamat will have many benefits for me, even if I never become a good, or even competent, oud player.

So what *is* tarab anyway? And how do we get there?

Well, as I said to begin with, I still don’t think that I fully understand what tarab is, and I doubt that I ever will – but here are some of the ideas from the book, on the characteristics of tarab and tarab music, that most stuck me, and resonated with my own listening experiences:

  • Conflicting emotions, such as love and separation, joy and sorrow, are brought together into a ‘bittersweet’ emotional state.
  • A stylised lyrical theme of love and longing is both something that most people can identify with, which creates the intense conflicting emotions described above, and a metaphor for a love of the music itself.
  • Musical looseness of timing (i.e. not rigidly following the underlying rhythm), especially on the part of the singer (who can choose to stretch out syllables, ornament melodies, and alter timing), creates a powerful tarab effect.
  • Everybody involved in creating music, including the poet who writes the lyrics, the composer, and the musicians and singer, should ideally have a strong emotional connection to it, which is then reflected in the music when it is performed.
  • Back-and-forth interaction between musicians and listeners, and a good atmosphere, are essential at a live musical event.

And as to the experience of tarab itself, I have no way to know how my own experiences compare to those of an Arab music lover, or how closely my emotional state when listening to music corresponds to theirs. That is essentially unknowable. But I do find that some pieces of music (or more precisely, some recordings or renditions, since not every version of the same piece has the same effect) have a powerful effect upon me at times. This is difficult to describe, but I will try [1]:

Bellydancer Rasha with live Arabic band

Rasha with a live Arabic band.

  • A general feeling of heightened emotion, with something of the bittersweet character described above, sometimes combined with a certain awe for the musician or singer who has created such beauty.
  • A sensation of ‘melting’ or being ‘in the music’, in which the music fills my awareness and it is difficult to pay attention to anything else – in this state, if I am dancing, dance often becomes natural and effortless.
  • Feeling the music within my body, as if my heart were rising and falling with the melody.

In the musical passages that tend to have this effect upon me, I can see many the elements of tarab that I mentioned earlier.

Almost all of my favourite Arabic songs have a theme of love, loneliness and (sometimes enjoyable) pain, which I find both moving and evocative. As a particularly unambiguous example, from ‘El Hawa Sultan‘ by George Wassouf, a song which I find very beautiful and never tire of listening to: “albi b3azabo kteer farhan” – “in her torture, my heart is joyful”. Or a more nuanced example of melancholy from Umm Kalthum’s powerful ‘El Hob Kolo’: “tariq hayati mashi qablak fi lail tawil; la qalb gambi ya7asibiya w la teyf gamil” “I walked the road of my life, before you, in an endless night; No heart beside me to feel me, nor any beautiful specter”.

Of course, having the right words isn’t enough, especially since I know very little Arabic and mainly rely on translations. The singer must also be able to imbue the lyrics with real emotion, which doesn’t rely upon the words to take effect.

Now I’m aware of it, I can also hear that the musical passages which tend to create a feeling of melting into the music are those where the singer or instrumental soloist works loosely around the rhythm, and stretches and embellishes the melody. I now know that this technique is known in Arabic as tatrib – the art of producing tarab. More effective still are the rhythmless mawawil (singular mawal), vocal improvisations which I have increasingly come to enjoy recently, although in most cases I do not dance to them or find them appropriate for dancing.

This also explains why I find some of the music recorded for dancers, especially some of that recorded by Western musicians or musicians with a somewhat Western aesthetic sense, feels rather flat, lifeless and emotionally empty – in these recordings, the playing is precise and the rhythm rigidly adhered to. And for some ineffable reason, that seems to cause tarab to melt away like a mirage, as if it was never there…

[1] Racy also describes an altered perception of the passage of time as a common part of the tarab experience. I can’t honestly say I have experienced this myself, but this is probably in part because I rarely have the chance to attend live concerts, where this is more likely to take place, and generally have to settle for recorded music.

Developing tastes, tuning ears

I’m aware that at least some of you reading this will probably be bellydance students who haven’t yet got that ‘into’ Arabic music (in which case, well done if you’ve made it this far!). So you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed or bewildered by the amount of information and specialist musical terms, or wondering why you don’t yet feel this special connection to the music that you hear in class or use for practise.

Appreciating Arabic music as a Western dancer is a rather gradual process, in my experience. It takes a lot of time and repeated exposure to get a good feeling for the rhythms and the unfamiliar melodic structure. To begin with, you will most likely feel more drawn to music with a simple structure or a lot of Western pop influence. The appeal of more complex music will gradually grow as the basic features of Arabic music become more familiar to you and start to seep into your subconscious. And with each step you take down that rabbit hole, the way ahead of you will be lit a little brighter, and the next step will become a little more inviting.

So it is that when I took my first bellydance class, I loved the Westernised fusion pop of Natacha Atlas, and when I first heard a recording of Umm Kalthum, I found it strange and inaccessible, and her voice austere and offputting. A little over five years later, after many small steps into the musically unfamiliar, and an hour-long live recording of Umm Kalthum can send shivers down my spine, although I still find it a little easier to lose myself in the deep, velvety voice of Abdel Halim Hafez. And poor Natacha now languishes, unlistened, on my CD shelf.

This is an continuing journey, of course, and there is still a lot ahead of me – a lot of music that is loved by tarab aficionados, which I do not yet ‘get’. I may never ‘get’ all of it. Learning about the maqamat is another step on the journey, as is listening to music that I can’t fully appreciate yet, knowing that in time its beauty may reveal itself to me.

I’m also pretty sure that some of this depends on your personality and natural response to music. In “Making Music in the Arab World”, Racy speaks of a widespread belief among Arabs that response to music is innate, and that some children naturally become fixated on music (and may go on to become musicians or music lovers) whilst others are indifferent. This fits with other things I have read on musical response – some people simply do not derive any pleasure from music at all (about one in twenty, apparently), whilst others may enjoy some aspects of music but not others, or respond with a more straightforward enjoyment of rhythm and melody rather than the complex trance-like/ecstatic state of tarab. So although this is a path of musical appreciation that I feel drawn to, you may find after some experimentation that your own musical direction or interest takes you elsewhere.

More about the book

This has been more of a rambling essay than a review so far, so to finish, here’s a little more on the book itself. Although it’s an academic work, I found it perfectly readable most of the time. There are some sections that go into a fair bit of technical detail on maqamat which you might want to skip if you have no knowledge of musical theory, but most of the content is remarkably accessible and clearly written.

I actually found this so interesting that I could hardly put it down, and would have read it all in one go had time allowed – as a dancer with a strong interest in music, it came as a series of revelations to me. The chapters cover the social context of tarab music, some of the technical details of how this music works and what aspects of it create the powerful effect it has upon listeners, a detailed look at the lyrical themes including many examples of lyrics and translations, and a fascinating overview of what defines tarab and tarab music. There are many invaluable insights from interviews with musicians and singers, as well as the author’s own experiences as a tarab musician, which give him a unique view of the subject.

So basically, if you love music, and are OK with books that are a bit academic in tone, I definitely recommend this. It’s going on my mental list of essential reading for the thoughtful bellydancer (along with Karin Nieuwkerk’s “A Trade Like Any Other”).

Further reading:

Bellydance and cultural ‘appreciation’

Bellydancer Rasha with live Arabic band

Rachael dancing to live Egyptian music

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:

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.

On ‘modernity’ in bellydance

Just a little rant for a Tuesday morning, on a subject that just keeps coming up… 😉

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!

Why yes, I am a feminist

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” – Marie Shear

This is what a feminist looks like

I am a feminist.

Now, I’ve heard it said that you should keep quiet about your politics when you are wearing your ‘professional hat’. But I don’t see this as politics. It’s who I am. I’m a woman, working in a female-dominated industry (where a lack of professional respect and low pay is rife), teaching mostly female students, and working with many women as clients. Treating myself and all those amazing women who I meet in my life as a dancer with equality and respect is seriously important to me. We’re all unique individuals not defined by our gender, and through the bellydance word, I’ve been able to see that more clearly than ever, as this dance has enabled me to meet lots of wonderful, inspirational women who I would never otherwise have met. This is not a dispassionate political opinion that I can switch off at will, it’s a non-negotiable part of my identity.

There is often a nagging fear that if you wear your heart on your sleeve about issues you believe in, as a professional, you will lose work. Well, as I said, I work with, and for, a lot of women. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing if those women can feel secure in the knowledge that I am always going to value their input and deal with them based on their own personal strengths and weaknesses rather than what society says women are or ought to be.

And if anybody chooses not to book me because of my principles, well, that’s probably not a gig I wanted anyway. As a professional entertainer, I sometimes find myself in situations that can feel unsafe in the course of my work, like travelling alone to unfamiliar locations. If I’m honest, I would not feel entirely safe or comfortable going to a gig where my client was someone who wouldn’t have employed me if they had known I supported women’s rights. What would that say about them as a client? It would not give me confidence that they’d take care for my personal safety, deal swiftly with inappropriate audience members, or pay me fairly, on time and in full. And I’m not that desperate – there are plenty of other gigs in the sea.

So here it is. I’m a feminist, and a bellydancer. I am more than just an interchangeable specimen of my gender. I will stand up for what I believe in, even when I’m wearing my ‘professional hat’, because to do otherwise would be to betray myself.

Bellydance classes and self-esteem

How often have you seen dance and fitness classes advertised as ’empowering’ for women? It’s one of the biggest clichés of modern marketing – since the ‘girl power’ era of the 1990s, the idea of female empowerment has been used to sell just about every product imaginable, until it’s become almost meaningless

But as dance teachers, most of us genuinely do want to empower our students, and help them to build self esteem alongside their dance skills, even if we don’t advertise that way. So how can we cut through the advertisers’ empty promises, and actually work towards the ’empowerment’ that so many promise but so few deliver?

Empowerment or empty praise?

When you’re trying to build up someone’s confidence, it seems blindingly obvious to tell them good things about themselves – you are beautiful, you are strong, you are clever… In bellydance classes, this can come out as talk about ‘inner goddesses’, or how all women are inherently beautiful/sensual/powerful.

The trouble with that is that counter-intuitively, the lower someone’s self-esteem, the less they will find that kind of praise believable. When a student with low confidence hears her inherent qualities being praised, rather than feeling empowered, she may feel ashamed and inadequate because the praise she’s hearing is so far from how she feels about herself.

Person praise vs. process praise

There have been interesting studies recently on how different types of praise affect self-esteem. In short, there are two types of praise:

  • person praise – praises a person’s innate qualities, e.g. “you’re a clever girl”
  • process praise – praises a person’s actions, e.g. “I can see you worked really hard on that!”

A reflection of your value as a person?

It has been shown that for people with low self-esteem, person praise actually reduces self-esteem and motivation, because it ties personal worth to material achievement. If doing well in a maths test means you’re ‘clever’, would it mean you were actually stupid after all if you did badly next time? Children with low self-esteem who are given person praise tend to avoid challenges and fear failure, because failure in a task becomes a sign that they are, after all, not worthy of the praise that they were given. The person praise creates feelings of shame and unworthiness.

Now imagine that after doing well at school, instead of “Well done, you’re a clever girl”, you were told “Well done, you studied really hard and didn’t give up when it got difficult”. How would that make you feel about the next challenge? A lot better, I’m guessing. Process praise removes the tie between success/failure and self-worth, and instead makes success something that you can control, and failure something you can learn from.

Why does this matter to bellydance teachers?

Rasha's bellydance class

Teaching my beginners class in Oxford

As a bellydance teacher, the vast majority of my students are women. And as it turns out, women often suffer disproportionately from the harmful effects of person praise. Adults have been found to give more person praise to girls than to boys (“who’s a good girl? Aren’t you pretty!”), whilst boys get more process praise (“you did a great job!”). A huge emphasis is, of course, also put on girls’ appearance, which is almost always a source of person, rather than process, praise. This unintentionally sabotages girls’ self-esteem, leaving them less emotionally able to face challenges or risk failure, and feeling less in control of their own lives.

The great news is, we can do a lot to change this. And we don’t even need to go out of our way to do so – it comes very naturally as a part of dance teaching, and whilst I have no desire to be a therapist to my students, I do think this side effect of learning dance is as important to many students as the dance itself. I’m not a new-agey type at all, and facebook memes about self-belief and blind ‘positivity’ irritate me as much as the next person, but I do feel that this is both important and practical.

Learning dance lends itself perfectly to the use of process praise, and developing a feeling of agency over your own achievements. Mastering a complex physical skill like bellydance takes serious effort and practise even for the most naturally gifted. So all we need to do as dance teachers is to be sure to notice, acknowledge and praise that effort in our students, and avoid directing our praise or criticism toward their personal qualities.

For women who may have never really been praised for their work rather than their qualities before, this can be transformative. There is nothing more empowering than discovering that your own abilities aren’t fixed, that you have the power to become skilled at things that once seemed impossible. For me, and for many others, probably the most important lesson I have learned in dance class is that I can change my own abilities through effort and persistence, and that success or failure does not reflect my worth.

In conclusion…

Learning dance is an effective way to develop a more healthy attitude to intimidating challenges and the risk of failure. Teach this, and you’ll create not only dancers who are well equipped to continue learning and growing as artists for many years to come, but also women who feel happier and more in control of their own destinies, and who can become more proactive and fearless in their daily lives. Acknowledge and encourage effort and perseverance, embrace failure as a necessary part of learning, and you can truly, quietly, empower those around you.

Further reading

A bellydancer’s best week of the year: JWAAD Summer School 2013

I’m aware that I’ve been a bit quiet for a while – sorry! I tend to have grandiose ideas for blog posts that end up more like massive essays, and then feel bad about posting anything else until I finish them. I’m still working on part 2 of my rather epic article on bellydance and ballet, but in the mean time, I’ve decided to try writing some shorter and less weighty posts (although I also feel a terrible compulsion to actually write a post on bellydance and cultural appropriation soon, which will, no doubt, turn into some sort of monstrous mini-doctoral thesis…).

English: View of Wellington College main build...

Wellington College (image credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway… I spent the week before last secluded in the Berkshire countryside at the 23rd JWAAD Summer School, which was held at Wellington College this year for the first time, after the old venue decided they’d rather hold ballet summer schools for small children than have the school taken over by 100 rampaging bellydancers! Another first, for me, was going as an ‘angel’ – one of the helpers who keeps the whole event running smoothly – along with my good friend Sarah, who had travelled all the way from Bergen, Norway.

Rasha dancing in the Summer School show

Rasha dancing in the Summer School show

The thing that makes Summer School so different from attending a normal dance festival or workshop weekend is the complete immersion in the dance world – for a week, a hundred-odd bellydancers (or indeed, a hundred odd bellydancers!) live together, eat together, dance together and party together. The number of dancers in each class is rarely more than 20, which also helps. It’s quite a unique atmosphere to be in a class with dancers you’ve become friends with at Summer Schools over the years, and indeed with teachers who have had a chance to get to know you and your dancing.

By the end of the week, most people will have made new friends, and there is a real feeling of community. It’s also easy to forget the outside world, and focus completely on dance, in a way that’s rarely possible for most of us. This means that it’s not uncommon to make real leaps in your dancing whilst at Summer School, that may have taken many months back in the outside world…  This year, I don’t feel that I’ve absorbed quite as much new information as in previous years, but I’ve definitely come back with some useful insights, and in particular, greatly enjoyed the opportunity to dance with one of my favourite tabla players, Adam Warne.

Rasha in Angel mode

In Angel mode. Yes, they do make us wear those…

As for the Angel experience, well… It was definitely tiring, but also fun. Arrival day was something of a baptism of fire, as busloads of dancers appeared and had to be shepherded to their rooms in the new and unfamiliar venue, amidst a sort of controlled chaos of flamboyantly dressed women and enormous suitcases. Later in the week, things calmed down a lot, with our main tasks being getting rooms set up for our various evening activities (i.e. covering everything in sparkly fabric and fairy lights!). Not particularly hard work, but even as a non-Angel most people start to succumb to exhaustion after a few days, and our duties meant we rarely had time for a sneaky pre-dinner nap to recover… Towards the end of the week, Sarah and I were both becoming quite unhinged through sheer tiredness, and could be sent into helpless giggling fits by the most seemingly innocuous comments – if I’m honest, we didn’t mind this too much. But I did sleep for almost 12 hours straight on my first night back at home…

And the parties? Well, what happens at Summer School stays at Summer School. You’ll just have to come next year to find out what we get up to 😉

Bellydance vs. Ballet: Comparing Apples to Anteaters

Anteater

Anteater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ballet. It’s a comparison that inevitably comes up when discussing any issue in the bellydance world. For a lot of people in the West, “dance” is ballet, and it’s the standard against which all other dances get compared. Unfortunately, in discussions on bellydance, I don’t believe that this comparison is very useful, because the two dance forms are so wildly different in so many ways. The ballet analogies are unavoidable, but I feel that they very rarely provide any meaningful insight. To borrow and misquote from someone else I can’t remember, it’s not even like comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to anteaters.

In these posts, I’ll be discussing the various comparisons that are frequently made between bellydance and ballet, and why in my view, there aren’t many true parallels. Since it is a subject which I have a lot to say about, I’ve had to split my post into several parts, of which this is the first…

Cultural roots – the dance of my people?

Fifi Abdou dances baladi

Egyptian bellydance has its roots in Raqs Baladi, the folk dance of ordinary Egyptian people. Raqs Baladi literally means “dance of my country” or “dance of my people”. It is a dance that ordinary people learn by copying their family and friends as children, and dance together at celebrations. Egyptian kids don’t get shipped off on a Saturday morning for Baladi classes, it’s just the dance they grow up with, and a part of who they are as much as the language they grow up speaking or the music they grow up listening to. Even those who go on to be top professional dancers often say they started out dancing at family gatherings, then copied the dancers they saw at weddings and on TV,  and although they may have gone on to have more formal training, that was not until they were already accomplished dancers.

English: A performance of The Nutcracker balle...

A performance of The Nutcracker ballet, 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast, it’s a very long time since ballet parted ways with any folk roots it once had. In all of my lifetime as a white British woman, I’ve never seen ballet danced among friends at a party (my own social circle mostly prefer variations on awkwardly shuffling from one foot to the other, apart from those family members who have taken up modern Jive), or met anyone who had picked up ballet from their family and friends without going to formal classes. As somebody who has never taken regular ballet classes and has only been to the ballet once (that’s fewer times than I’ve seen the Chinese state circus…), it is not really a part of my culture in any meaningful way. It is very disconnected from the cultural expressions of ordinary people anywhere. To learn ballet, children go to formal classes from a young age, and the child’s cultural background is mostly irrelevant to this training process.

If ballet ‘belongs’ to any group of people as a cultural expression, it’s to an upper middle class elite, spread across many countries and even continents, who may have more in common with each other than with the ordinary people of their respective countries. But even these people don’t actually learn ballet unless they go to classes, although they may watch it much more frequently than most people. There is nobody, anywhere, for whom ballet is truly “the dance of my people”.

Types of learning – speaking Latin?

Bellydancers often ask why our training isn’t more like ballet. More codification, more terminology, more rigour… I believe that the differences here also come from the differences between a folk dance and a classical dance.

To use the analogy of language learning, which I often find helpful when thinking about dance learning, Egyptians grow up with Raqs Baladi as their ‘mother tongue’ of dance movement. This means that for them, formal lessons play only a small role – they are able to learn by imitation of the people around them, the same way I learned to speak English. They will probably need training later on if they want to reach artistic greatness, just as a native English speaker would still need training to go from being just a fluent speaker to being a good novelist or poet, but the basics come from cultural immersion.

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A British or American dancer, on the other hand, hasn’t grown up with Raqs Baladi. Sadly, we often don’t even have our own equivalent, as social dancing of any type has declined miserably in many places, hence the awkward foot-to-foot shuffling. When we decide to learn bellydance, we are in the same sort of position as we would be as English speakers turning up to our first Arabic language class. Everything is unfamiliar, from the alphabet to the grammar. And as adults, we’re no longer able to effortlessly soak up information from our surroundings like children, and we don’t have easy access to that culture to immerse ourselves in anyway (unless we live somewhere that still has a thriving Arabic club scene), so apart from a few rare individuals, most of us will need formal lessons.

However, because of its social nature in its home environment, bellydance doesn’t come ‘ready made’ with a formal learning structure. The people who developed it didn’t need one. That leaves it up to dance teachers in the West to devise a learning structure that can replace the social learning for Western dancers, without losing the social, improvisational nature of the dance that is part of its unique appeal. As Western learners, we have to start from the very beginning, having to learn the alphabet all over again before we can even string sounds together into words, let alone compose our own poetry.

Latin inscription in the museum at Monteleone ...

Latin inscription (Photo credit: diffendale)

Sticking with the language analogy for a bit, ballet is like a language with no native speakers. Learning ballet is more akin to studying Latin than learning a modern language with an existing body of native speakers. Everyone who learns it is learning it as a ‘second language’. Some will have advantages, like having a native language that uses the Latin alphabet, or that is linguistically related to Latin (like Italian or French). In dance, this might translate as things like having familiarity with the structures of Western classical music, or coming from a culture where dance is expected to be primarily about movements of the limbs through space, or a culture where the physical body is seen as a thing to be transcended. But nobody comes to it as a native speaker. Everyone has to go through the formal learning process, which native Egyptians don’t usually need to dance Raqs Baladi. Ballet simply could not exist as a dance without the formal learning process.

Toy Poodle from 1915

Toy Poodle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, for bellydance, formal learning is an ‘added extra’ which allows cultural outsiders to participate, but which is somewhat alien to its folk roots. But for ballet, it’s an absolute necessity, without which the dance form could not exist. This is why a universal codified learning structure for bellydance is unlikely to ever exist as it does for ballet. The dance form does not need it to survive, and by strictly codifying bellydance, it would be removed further from the more organic nature of Raqs Baladi, possibly eventually being refined and redefined until it bore no more resemblance to it than a toy poodle does to its ancestor, the grey wolf.

Tango Kiss

(Photo credit: Pat McDonald)

This is not a totally unfounded concern on my part. It has been pointed out to me that a similar thing has already happened to dances like Argentine Tango and Salsa as they have been incorporated into ballroom dance and ‘dancesport’. The ballroom versions of these dances, as performed in competitions and widely taught around the world, are sanitised, homogenised and sometimes bear little resemblance to the original social dances they were based on. They have been taken from their original cultural context, and have lost a lot in the process (including their music) – people who dance the original versions simply don’t recognise the ballroom styles as their own dance. Do we want this to happen to bellydance in the West? To some extent, it already has.

The Performer’s Paradox – It’s the Quiet Ones You Need to Watch

I am many things. A dancer, a teacher, a performer, a blogger, and in my ‘other’ life a geek, a feminist, an occasional goth… And an introvert.

The idea of a shy or introverted performer doesn’t make sense to most people. It doesn’t seem natural for somebody who finds social interaction stressful or tiring to excel at performing for a crowd, or at teaching a class. People who know me from the non-dance world are often amazed when they see me perform for the first time, because they really didn’t expect somebody who is normally quiet and reserved to be able to bare their soul on stage for a theater audience.

Rasha dancing to Enta Omri

Rachael dancing to Enta Omri. Photo by Nick Mills

And yet, I meet many performers who are not naturally outgoing or attention-seeking types in their normal lives. I can’t begin to guess what the percentage is, but it seems that introverted performers are far more common than one might expect. This leads me to wonder, why?

I can only speak for myself, but as a beginner dancer, I found the idea of performing quite frightening (as do most of us!). The idea of dancing socially with others, however, was far more terrifying. And dancing of any kind paled into insignificance compared to the sheer horror of actually speaking to my teacher or my classmates.

As I’ve grown as a dancer my social anxiety has lessened drastically, and I’m now pretty comfortable talking to people I don’t know, but I still find social interaction a bit draining, and probably always will. Yet somehow, performing doesn’t have the same effect. Perhaps it’s the freedom from having to actually speak to a single person face to face that makes the difference. When I talk enthusiastically about bellydance to a room full of people, or dance at a busy restaurant, there is no anxiety or fear of getting something wrong. It sounds strange, but that’s how it is.

Whyever it happens, this lack of fear is very liberating. Introverts often express themselves through the arts, typically through solitary activities like painting, writing or making music – and although dance performance seems like something that wouldn’t work for us in the same way because of the social aspect, in reality it seems even more powerful. Through dance, introverts can express their emotions and artistic vision naturally and directly to their audience, without any of the awkwardness that accompanies normal conversation. This, for me, is a wonderful thing.

The strange thing is, as a dancer, I’m totally fine with even quite personal interactions like giving a cheeky grin to a lady two feet away in the front row whilst shimmying my bottom in her direction. I feel that when I’m dancing, I have permission to be bold and outgoing in a way that feels safe to me, because there are clearly defined roles. I am the performer, and I’m doing what is expected from me as the performer, so I don’t have to worry at all about what people will think of me for interacting with them or showing emotion.

So, if you’re shy or don’t like drawing attention to yourself, please don’t feel that this is a reason not to try dancing, or a reason to never perform. You may find that not only is it less frightening than you expected, but also that dancing and performing frees you to be truly yourself in a way that isn’t easy for all of us in daily life. And if you’re one of those bouncy, gregarious, life-and-soul-of-the-party types, well… Know that we reserved and quiet people aren’t  necessarily boring or unfriendly, and many of us have flamboyant hidden sides that may be deeply surprising to you. Remember what they say – it’s the quiet ones you need to watch 😉

Related links