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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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!

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.