The Orientalism of Beyoncé

“Enta Omri” Meets “Naughty Girl”…

The footage of Beyoncé bumpin’ and grindin’ to a sample of Umm Kulthum’s classic and unparalleled classic song “Enta Omri” has surfaced again after its initial appearance two years ago. Personally, I think the idea and its execution is a bit lazy. It shows a lack of interest in the context of the original song and a disregard for its meaning and cultural significance. The sample used is purely fodder for another Orientalist fantasy marketed at pop music consumers. As one with a background in Arab studies, I find her exotification and erotification of Middle Eastern tropes cliché at best. The red lighting, the pseudo Middle Eastern musical riff in the original “Naughty Girl” song… This again? Really? It’s something I’d expect from an artist with more institutional privilege than Bey (remember Britney Spears and her albino snake performing “Slave 4 U” at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards?), but I guess money and fame buy privilege, too.

But…. Then there’s the ugly reaction of so many belly dancers against the sexual nature of Beyoncé’s short performance. Much of the outrage includes an unhealthy dose of slut shaming. We can argue against Beyoncé’s use of “Enta Omri” without calling the performance “disgusting,” “vulgar,” or commenting on how her “ass cheeks” are “hanging out” of her costume. (Sure, those costumes certainly offer no coverage for the rear at all.) These comments appear to come from the point of view that belly dance is not sexual (when, in fact, it is often perceived as akin to sex work, and we shouldn’t be shaming that either), or that it’s up to Western women to “sanitize” it as a form of family-friendly entertainment for all occasions.

Beyonce and Orientalism

Not Shown: Booty-revealing leotards. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Sampling is Essential to Hip Hop Culture… and to Beyoncé’s Music

This instance also showcases a key and essential part of hip hop culture: sampling. Without sampling—of recordings, ideas, dance movements, and clothing—hip hop culture would be drastically different. It might not even exist at all. In fact, a recent decline in sales and overall quality of hip hop albums is attributed to the increasing expense of licensing music samples with which to make records. Beyoncé’s music, which some might argue is not textbook hip hop, certainly draws influence from hip hop’s lineage… and it is full of “sampled” sound clips. (Some argue that she “rips off” other artists, but I’m not here to claim one way or another.) For example, “Run the World” is built around a drumbeat from “Pon Da Floor” originally by Major Lazer. This website lists some of the songs her music has sampled… as well as who has sampled her.

An "Oriental" dancer wearing markers of both the belly dancer and Bollywood dancer.

An “Oriental” dancer in Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty to Me” music video wearing markers of both the belly dancer and Bollywood dancer.

In the “Enta Omri” sampling, we see a clash of theoretical and historical frameworks. Sampling culture meets Orientalism. And this is nothing new (the linked article is pretty fantastic and worth your time). Hip hop music is full of the exotification of Middle Eastern culture, especially Middle Eastern women. Beyoncé’s husband, Jay Z, sampled Hossam Ramzy’s recording of “Khusara Khusara” (originally sung by Abdel Halim Hafez) over a decade ago in his song “Big Pimpin’.” Wyclef Jean, too, sampled “Enta Omri” for a song called “Hollywood Meets Bollywood,” as though India and the Arab world were one and the same, with musical traditions there for the taking. Jason Derulo asks women from around the world to “Talk Dirty” to him, complete with female dancers representing the usual exotified cultures: Indian, Polynesian, and Arabic (backed by a sample of Balkan Beat Box’s song “Hermetico”). And who could forget Akon’s “Bananza (Belly Dancer)”, complete with dancers in hip scarves and anklets, “Pharaonic” arm shapes, a woman playing a doumbek incorrectly, and, of course, snakes. R. Kelly went ahead and released this song and music video, aptly called “Snake,” full of many of the Reel Bad Arabs tropes. But sampling culture is all about taking and making something new out of it. Is this cultural appropriation as the media has so often described it, or something else? Why are we not as angry about the more blatant sexualization of belly dancers and Middle Eastern women in the above examples than we are about Beyoncé? Are we more outraged by Beyoncé’s Orientalism because she is a woman, and not a man like in the examples mentioned above? Is it really about the sampling of Umm Kulthum, who really does hold a unique and elevated place in the history of Arabic music?

Celebrities and the Nirvana Fallacy

We laud Beyoncé for being at the forefront of visibility and success for black women in music. Her recent visual album Lemonade has been regarded by music critics and people of color as being a masterpiece that highlights the plights and issues that directly affect black women in the United States. (Even Lemonade received jeers from the mostly white critics who “didn’t get it,” as though everything Beyoncé makes must be palatable to the White ear.) So, I think for some, the outrage (two years ago and today) many are experiencing over the “Enta Omri” sample in Beyoncé’s On The Run tour is actually a cognitive dissonance: How could a woman so invested in the promotion and power of women of color sexualize one of the greatest and magnificent songs of one of the most influential and celebrated singers from the Middle East? On one hand, we can’t celebrate Beyoncé for flaunting her body so confidently and unapologetically and then on the other, shame her for not doing it on “our terms.” Belly dancers who enjoy her work and who are outraged by her use of “Enta Omri” are probably wondering: Is it still safe to celebrate “Queen Bey”?

Here’s the thing: Even your most favorite celebrities (and politicians) will do things you won’t like. That doesn’t mean you must abandon listening to or supporting them. That doesn’t mean you have to hate everything else they do. It’s immature to think that a public figure you admire is always going to make decisions that you love. And when they don’t, it doesn’t make you a hypocrite to love some of their work or the things they do and find other things they do unsettling. Humans are not infallible. To believe otherwise is called the “Nirvana Fallacy,” and is an increasingly common mindset.

Should I Be Offended?

If I am to be offended by Beyoncé’s sampling of “Enta Omri,” I am more “offended” by the lack of research or curiosity demonstrated by her and her creative team. If they had done some investigation, inquired about the song that they sampled, the woman who originally sang it, the composer who wrote it, the song’s meaning and significance to the Egyptian people, its place in the history of Arabic music, its political and social context, and maybe even some inquiry into Orientalism itself, maybe they wouldn’t have chosen to use it in this performance.

Or, maybe they would… because here we are, two years after the tour, still talking about it. There’s no way of knowing for sure.

In the end, though, it’s not my place to be “offended” for the sampling of “Enta Omri,” nor Beyoncé’s interpretation of it through sexually suggestive dance movements. I am neither black nor Arab. Yes, I am a belly dancer, but I consider myself a “guest” in this complicated phenomenon of Arabic culture, not a resident. To be offended on behalf of Egyptians is its own kind of colonialism, patronizing and silencing. It’s not my job to “save” Arabic culture or even belly dance. As a white-passing dancer born and raised in California, I have neither been steeped in hip hop culture, nor have I been raised in Arab culture. I can learn about both intellectually, but I am not fully immersed in either. For those interested, here’s an English-language article from an Arab magazine about Orientalism in Western pop culture.

You Can Still Love Beyoncé and Umm Kulthum

Personally, I can still admire Beyoncé for being one of today’s hardest working female pop stars, for owning her body and her sexuality, and for bringing greater visibility to women of color in pop music (although I understand that she comes under fire for her methods in this as well). I can also question her artistic decisions when it comes to fields of study that I know quite a bit about, such as Orientalism and the perpetuation of Arab stereotypes.

We can hold these two ideas in mind without slut shaming, resorting to mindless insults, or playing White savior.

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How Dance Company Rehearsals Aren’t Technique Class

We dancers rely on repetition. When we work on the same movements again and again, refining and expanding them, we help integrate them into our muscle memory. From that memory, we can call upon those movements when we need them, be it when performing a choreography, improvising, or creating new work.

Sometimes it feels like because we are practicing the same choreographies again and again that attending company and troupe rehearsals might also be a substitute for taking technique classes. Yes, rehearsals require refinement of movement, learning the skills of working with others, matching their lines, flocking, and also showcasing your clean technique. But rehearsals and technique class have different objectives, and your mindset in each should be slightly different.

TechniqueNotRehearsal

Attending rehearsal is not the same as attending a regular technique class.

In most dance forms, skipping technique isn’t even an option. Professional dance companies, from ballet to modern to hula, almost always require their members to take at least one weekly class. If you’re skipping out on technique, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to work on the essential movement elements you need to use in rehearsal. Plus, rehearsals just aren’t the time to be learning how to do the movements.

Here’s what you’re missing if you regularly skip technique:

Working on you. When you attend a technique class, you are there to push yourself with the instructor’s guidance. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else in the class is working on at that moment. You are there to work on what you need to work on and receive feedback from your instructor to make you a better dancer. You are pretty much only responsible for your own learning. You are solo, unencumbered by responsibility to the group (apart from the usual classroom courtesies and etiquette of not running into people, managing your personal space, and staying in lines and groups as necessary). In rehearsal, however, you are one member of a larger unit. A whole. Everyone in a company rehearsal is responsible for everyone else. It is not a solo venture. Let technique class be a time to work on what you need to work on.

Expanding your physical and embodied knowledge beyond what is necessary for the next performance. When a student attends more rehearsals than technique classes, they are only working for the short-term. What’s the next show? What dances are we performing? What are we working on next? If you’re only attending rehearsals, you’re very likely working on choreographies that might be using one side of the body more than the other, and it’s very unlikely that the choreographies you’re working on are going to include the wide breadth and scope of technical skill required of your dance form. Technique classes challenge your body and your physical skills, so that when you attend rehearsal, you can bring those skills in right away.

Building your movement vocabulary. This is certainly related to the previous point. If you’re only ever attending rehearsals, you’re not working on an a wide range of movement vocabulary. Even if you’re running an evening-length show. Technique classes keep your body primed for whatever the next choreography might be, so that you can just jump right into doing that dance without figuring out how to do it. That’s not what rehearsal is for; that’s why you attend technique classes.

Pushing yourself in a relatively risk-free space. Sure, when you attend dance class, it can feel like you need to get everything right each time you try something. But technique class is an opportunity for you to experiment. What happens if you reach your arms a little more, breath deeper, extend through your toes more, or press up into your forced arch just a little higher than you did last week? Does it work? If not, why not? If so, how can you find that sensation again when you need it? What could you do to make your next round of movement clearer, cleaner, more effortless, and more confident? You also learn how you work under various stresses. Maybe it’s a bad day at work, a bad night’s sleep, an injury. You still come to class and do the work. How does that work change from week-to-week? You won’t know unless you attend regular classes. In a technique class, you should be pushing yourself beyond your technical limit so that when you do perform, either in a company or solo, you can be so confident with your movement that you don’t have to think about it. You bring these discoveries to rehearsal, rather than making them there.

When you miss technique class, you miss an opportunity to work on yourself. Plus, you might find that when you are tired and maybe even a little bit grumpy, that taking that time for you will make you feel uplifted and reinvigorated. Make technique class as high a priority as attending rehearsals. Your body will thank you, and it will make learning that new company choreography so much easier.

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How Dance Instructors Can Keep a Beginner’s Mind

BeginnersMindOne of the classes I teach at the Salimpour School of Dance is Level 1 technique. Our students often have no prior dance training or experience. They’re often looking for a new way to get exercise and have fun, and many of them are apprehensive… because trying something new as an adult can take a lot of courage. Especially in a room with a wall of mirrors at the front!

When I teach Level 1, I often think back to when I was first learning belly dance, particularly the Suhaila Format. I remember how hard it was for me to separate my hipwork from my footwork. I remember being frustrated with myself when I couldn’t do a drill right away. I remember how I sometimes struggled to learn a combination or a chunk of choreography. Of course, I became a beginner again when I started my Master’s degree in dance, where I was taking four modern dance classes a week.

It’s important for instructors who teach beginners to reflect on what it was like to be new to a dance form. This act of self-reflection helps us become more compassionate instructors, and also allows us to create more positive learning environments.

When we forget what it’s like to be new at something, it’s easy to get frustrated with those who are new. We let our egos interfere. We think we know something, so we use that knowledge to look down on those who don’t instead of allowing those who have less experience process and figure out how they need to approach the new information. There’s a phenomenon of human thought where we think that everyone thinks like us, but as an instructor, I need to be able to understand that everyone’s experience in the classroom is unique.

Personally, I love teaching new students. I love the excitement I see on their faces when they start to assimilate a movement into their bodies. I love their questions about anatomy and the body. I love seeing those imaginary “thought bubbles” over their heads when they’re figuring out a drill or exercise. I love seeing the sense of satisfaction they exude after they’ve danced a combination several times. I love seeing our regular students progress and improve, even when that improvement might be small. New students are absorbing so much information, and as an instructor, I can so often see students integrate and physicalize that knowledge from week to week. It’s exciting, and it keeps me excited about my own practice. When I’m excited, they’re excited. And from a business standpoint: when students are excited to come to class, they’ll keep coming back.

When the teacher expresses enthusiasm, the students feel it, and it becomes a positive feedback loop of awesome.

And here’s the thing. We’re always beginning at something. No matter how long we have danced, there is always a new choreography to learn, a new stylization, an advancement of technique, the constant polishing and cleaning up of work that we think we know. There is always more, be it physical (such as layering or finger cymbals) or theoretical (such as learning to recognize different Arabic musical maqamat or historical/cultural context).

Even if you’re not an instructor, remembering your beginner’s mind and allowing yourself to be a beginner might help reinvigorate your practice and allow yourself to try something new.

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How Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

When you’re a dancer, sitting out might make you feel like you’re not doing enough. You want to get the most out of every class you take. And sometimes, that means you can be really hard on yourself when you might be laid up by an injury or having a difficult day with your body. Well, I know I can be really hard on myself.

The reality is, though, as dancers we do get injured, have off days, and if we are consistently training and taking classes, our bodies will need breaks…. but we’re still expected to attend classes and rehearsals.

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.

Sitting Out Is Still Participating

While earning my MA at Mills, I had to take a set number of technique classes, and our grade depended on our participation. That meant showing up for class, even if we were injured. If we had to sit out, our instructors required us to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. They didn’t let us leave halfway through class, and there were only so many absences we could take without it affecting our grade.

When I tore my hamstring (again) in February 2015, I sat out for nearly three weeks of technique classes. While I felt completely devastated by not being able to participate, I now realize that this was an opportunity to refine my eye for watching dance and learning material in a new way.

It also gave me an opportunity to work smarter when I was healed enough to participate.

5 Ways Watching Class Can Improve Your Skills

  1. You can rest your body while still observing and learning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in pushing ourselves and our bodies that we forget that recovery is essential to being strong dancers. Plus, being in the studio classroom with your hard-working, talented colleagues is a great antidote to self-pity.
  2. You can see how others apply the cues and techniques presented in class. Then you can ask yourself if you are doing the same when you return to the floor. I noticed in one of my technique classes at Mills that several students allowed their pelvis to over-tuck during battement exercises, and now I pay better attention to that in my own body. You can also feel how the energy of the room shifts when an instructor asks dancers to be bigger, commit more, and think less.
  3. You can be present and supportive of your fellow dancers. Energy in the room depends on who is there and how engaged they are with the material. If you’re not there, your energy isn’t there. I know that when my fellow dancers are sitting out, I can still feel their engagement and support from the sidelines.
  4. You can take notes in your dance journal. Taking notes is another form of motor memory. When you sit out and observe, you can write what you see, which helps commit new ideas to memory. I know I will be referring to my notes for years to come. Plus, notes are far more permanent than a combination that you learn once and never repeat.
  5. Your instructors will not think you are a failure. They won’t think you’re weak, or that you aren’t dedicated if you sit out. It’s more likely that they will appreciate that you took care of yourself that day, and that you were present for everyone else in class.

Additional Sitting Out Strategies

This isn’t to say that you should sit out whenever you’re tired or not feeling up to dancing. And I don’t think that taking notes are a wholesale substitute for dancing. When there’s a choice between dancing and not dancing, the answer should be “dance, of course!” But if you attend a regular class, and are laid up with an injury, I recommend still going to class.

Be polite and quiet if you are sitting on the sidelines. Communicate with your instructor what is happening with your body, as well as what you are doing to actively rehabilitate yourself. Remind them if a recurring injury flairs up.

If you don’t have a plan, your instructor can help direct you to body workers, PTs, and other professionals who can help. Your instructor will appreciate that you let them know your situation, and they will also note that you still showed up for class, even if you weren’t able to do everything.

That kind of commitment goes a long way, not only in the dance studio, but also on the stage, and your life outside the studio.

Have you had to sit out class because of injury? What did you learn from that experience?

Tell us in the comments!

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Dance Technique is Fancy Habits

Dance sometimes feels like some sort of mysterious practice, full of magic in its impermanence, and yet real in its physicality. We practice our technique and choreographies again and again to make our movements clearer, stronger, cleaner, more refined, and more fully embodied. Ballet dancers never stop practicing their tendus or plies. Practitioners in the Salimpour School always work on their glute squeezes and Basic Egyptian.

But really, when you get down to it, good technique is just fancy habits.

Good dance technique is fancy habits blog post by Abigail Keyes

New Habits Are Not Always Easy

This is not to minimize technique, take it for granted, or imply that it’s easy. Indeed, maybe the opposite is true. How many times have you tried to change your habits in daily life, and how many times were you successful? Changing your habits and getting into new ones actually takes a great deal of mindfulness and work.

When we go to class, we’re integrating new movements and further integrating more familiar movements into our physical memories. Learning choreography is putting those habits into a longer practice.

We revisit the same steps and sequences of movements again and again so that they become habitual, unconscious, and physically available to us in times when we need them most, and when we might be under duress… such as in a recital, performance, or practical exam.

Habits Don’t Equal Mindlessness

And of course, habits can become mindless. I think of all the times I’ve locked the front door of my house out of habit but I can’t remember if I actually turned the key in the keyhole. We can “go through the motions” of our daily lives without thinking about what we do, and that is death for the dancer.

When we fail to continually refine our technique, phrases, and choreographies, we fail to improve our already embodied skills.

Habits Require Mindfulness

Every day we go to dance class, we are creating new habits and refining existing ones. It is also essential that we identify somatic habits that might be detrimental to our physical bodies, such as poor alignment, as well as psychological ones that might result in negative thoughts or feelings.

If we habitually tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough and that we won’t ever remember that choreography, then we truly won’t remember that choreography. That is, of course, where a great instructor can guide our practice out of negative habits and into positive ones.

We practice our technique so that we can somehow transform mindlessness into mindfulness, and become better dancers every time we enter the studio or take the stage.

 





Why Dancers Need to Cross-Train

Here’s something you don’t often hear: A dancer admitting their injuries.

14 years of figure skating, plus going on 16 years of belly dance (as well as many other dance forms) have taken their toll on my body. I’m constantly managing cranky hamstrings (biceps femoris for those nerds who are curious) in both legs, particularly on the left, as well as what might be pre-arthritic inflammation in my left hip socket. My left patella is prone to instability, resulting from muscular imbalances in my upper legs, causing the dreaded “Runner’s Knee.” In addition, I occasionally suffer from Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. The muscles around my left tibia and fibula seized up for a month in 2014 causing an excruciating pain in the ball of my foot, so much so that I could not walk or dance on it.*

I’m not asking for sympathy. This is my physical reality, but it doesn’t mean I’m forever doomed to dance in pain.

I could easily blame my coaches and dance instructors for my injuries, but my injuries are as much my own fault as the movements I have done repeatedly to invoke them. I’m not even sure “fault” is the best word. Dancers push their bodies to do unnatural movements for the sake of expression, aesthetics, and beauty; do that enough, and there’s bound to be some consequences. I could also easily admit defeat in the face of these physical obstacles, allowing them to dictate my practice. And while I take much care to not aggravate these conditions, I refuse to let them hold me back.

As a child, and well into my teenage years and early 20s, I saw myself as indestructible. Sure, I had some back pain once in a while (which I later learned was related to my psoas), but it would heal, and I would be fine. It wasn’t until I tore my left biceps femoris again last year that I actually did anything about it.

And by then, it was almost too late.

Thankfully, as a graduate student in a dance program, I had access to a fantastic physical therapist. I began seeing her regularly, as well as enrolling in a Pilates teacher training program.

Indeed, seeing a physical therapist and regularly engaging in a Pilates routine helped rehabilitate my hamstrings, as well as reveal other imbalances and instabilities in my pelvis that could, if I am not careful, lead to further injuries. But because of my injury, my rehabilitation has made me a stronger, more stable, and more efficient mover.

Many of us in the American belly dance community are in our 30s and 40s, having started this dance while we were in our 20s. Movements such as Turkish Drops, backbends, and the splits might have been more easily attained in our more youthful forms; however, years of wear and tear not only through dancing, but office work or anything else we have done in our lifetimes have taken their toll on our bodies. (Sitting all day wreaks all sorts of anatomical havoc.)

It is important that we find ways to mitigate the inevitable damage that we do to our bodies as dancers. Those of us who seek to make a living from teaching and/or performing must take even more care, for our bodies are literally our livelihoods. Even the most anatomically-aware dance practice includes repetitive movements, and this repetition, if not balanced out by cross-training, can cause imbalances in the body that could lead to injury. This reality is often not the fault of our instructors or their methodologies. It’s just a reality of this meat-covered skeleton we call Home, and as maturing practitioners we must take responsibility for our own bodies. We can do so through cross-training.

What do I mean by cross-training? Engaging in an exercise routine that explicitly aims to identify and balance the body’s strengths and flexibilities. Sure, attending dance classes in other forms will work out different muscle groups, but a specific exercise practice will likely be the most valuable for injury prevention and movement longevity.

What methods are out there? One dancer I know insists on machine-based weight training (and rehabbed herself after a major surgery). Some swear by yoga, others Gyrotonic/Gyrokinesis. I know others who insist on attending Dailey Method workouts. I prefer Pilates mat and reformer work to bring greater kinesthetic awareness to the intrinsic muscles around my hips. Any practice that emphasizes alignment, somatics, and strengthening will likely benefit you in the studio and on stage. You’ll feel a difference even if you only go once a week.

As we age, we must recognize that it’s up to us to modify movements as necessary. Indeed, an instructor can give modifications, but we are more empowered if we know how to modify for ourselves in a way that is not disruptive to the class or other students. It’s also up to us as students to alert our instructors to any injuries we might be dealing with on a given day; it’s up to the instructor to honor that communication. A good instructor will.

Do your body a favor and find a method that makes your body feel stronger, supported, and mobile. We won’t dance forever, but we can at least make our dancing years as pain-free and injury-free as possible.

 

*For those who are curious about why the left side? That’s my landing leg. Every time a figure skater lands a jump, she puts 5-8 times her own body weight on it through sheer impact.


Blog as Thought Incubator

Today is Dr. Seuss’ birthday, and one of websites I follow, Big Think, posted this quote of his:

 

It reminded me that I wanted to write a blog post about blogging.

I have been keeping a public blog for nearly 10 years. That’s a lot of thoughts. And that’s a lot of thoughts that have been refined, changed, and deepened. What I knew 10 years ago is not what I know now, thank goodness. My opinions on dance are not the same as they were 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. My knowledge on issues such as race and gender as also deepened, and hopefully, I have become more sensitive and knowledgeable. I have written some blog posts that I don’t even agree with 100% today. I consider that a success.

My blogs are incubators for thought. They aren’t meant to be a static truth or opinion. They aren’t meant to be a decree of “This is what I will always think about XYZ subject.” Indeed, my blog is more of a “This is what I’m thinking about right now, and I’m using my blog to crystallize those thoughts, and maybe people will engage me in a critical discussion about those thoughts that I have decided to make public.”

People have disagreed with me, some more rationally than others. Some of messaged me privately to tell me of how I could expand upon my knowledge of a given subject. Others agree with me and share the post (although it is certainly the most ego-boosting response, it’s not necessarily what I seek). I appreciate the praise, but I seek to generate discussion, thought, self-reflection, and deeper consciousness about our respective dance practices. My truth will never be your truth. We might align in some places and deviate in others, but how can we ever find out where we stand if we never engage with others?

It takes a kind of bravery to put your thoughts out there for anyone who reads your language to read. Every time I click “publish” I get nervous. But for the sake of working out my own thoughts and helping others work out their own, I do click that button. And I hope that you all get something out of it, even—ah, no—especially if you disagree with me.


I Wrote You A Thing!

Yes, that’s write…. har har har.

Several years ago, the Salimpour School invited me to help edit a collection of Jamila Salimpour’s articles that she had written for Habibi magazine in the late 1970s and 1980s. As we read through the articles we thought that we needed to contextualize them. Jamila, while passionate about education and oriental dance in general, was not a trained scholar. She rarely cited her sources, and often conflated terminology. She had also been writing at a time when the theory of Orientalism had not yet entered the popular parlance, let alone with regard to its applications to belly dance practice in North America. While her articles have great value, not only for their content but also for the sense that they convey about her life and the state of belly dance at the time she was writing, we didn’t want students reading them and thinking they were gospel truth. They are and were Jamila’s truth, and of a certain time and place in belly dance history.

Suhaila and her team came to me and said, basically, that they wanted a companion volume to Jamila’s Article Book. I thought the project would be fun and illuminating, and with my background in history, political science, international relations, and of course, Middle Eastern studies, I took on the job. I thought we’d end up with a little guidebook to various topics related to those in the article book… but every time I overturned a topical rock, five more pertinent subjects would rear their snakey heads.

A few years later, and after reading myriad books, journal articles, web articles, and other sources, the Salimpour School has published what is now called the Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium Vol 1.

Inside you’ll find a narrative of Jamila Salimpour’s life, adding details and depth to the autobiographical articles she penned for Habibi over 30 years ago. This section also contextualizes the origins of Suhaila’s groundbreaking belly dance format.

You’ll also find my pet project: a survey of subjects, theory, history, and other subjects to supplement your studio practice. These topics include a brief history of the Islamic Middle East, including an overview of Islam and its main religious sects; the professional dancers in the Middle East, from the köçek to the stars of the 1960s; an introduction to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism; a look at some of the male performers in our genre; the emergence of the national folkloric companies in Egypt; and how Hollywood used and abused Oriental themes on the big screen…. and that’s just a taste. It’s nearly 200 pages long, lavishly illustrated, and includes a comprehensive bibliography.

This is the book on belly dance I always wish existed. I hope that it is illuminating and enlightening, and that it helps situate yourself and your practice within this dance’s rich and complicated history. I also hope that it will inspire you to read some of the many sources cited, and begin or continue your own investigation of belly dance in both practice and theory.

Available at the Salimpour School Online Store.


Exporiental Podcast: Volume 1

Over the years, I’ve collected quite a lot of music that crosses the lines between traditional and electronica. I first heard Arabic music when I was in high school (maybe earlier), and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for cultural mashups. As a dancer who straddles the space between North American and Middle Eastern, it’s only fitting that I would have a music collection that reflects the same. Although, I was building my music collection with artists such as Aisha Kandisha’s Jarring Effects, Loop Guru, and Banco De Gaia long before I took my first belly dance class.

So, I’ve decided to craft some mixes for you, sharing some deep cuts from my music collection. These mixes feature artists from the Middle East as well as those who aren’t, but who have used Middle Eastern instrumentation in their work. Some of these artists work in this hybrid space regularly, such as Filastine or Smadj, while others might only use a doumbek (or nay, mizmar, or ‘ud) in one track, such as Hecq or Hal. Some works are controversial, and some have been removed from re-releases. I feature Middle Eastern artists back to back with European and North American ones, highlighting our sonic similarities as well as our aesthetic and experiential differences.

I must also say that these songs are not necessarily ones I would dance to, although some I have. Some have lyrics that I have yet to find translations for, and others contain samples that some might find offensive. I’ve curated these mixes as aural collections, blending textures together to create soundscapes that flow from one to the next. You might find a track or two in here that makes you want to move, but tread lightly and be conscientious about your performance choices.

I hope that these mixes are a launching point for investigation, appreciation, and discovery.

Exporiental :: Vol 1 by Prog Raqs on Mixcloud


An open letter to the administration at Mills College

Recent proposed curriculum changes at the small, private, women-only, liberal arts institution Mills College, which sits in the Oakland hills in the San Francisco Bay Area has threatened the Dance Department there. Mills’ Dance Department is one of the oldest of its kind in the nation, and it happens to be where I am currently earning my Master of Arts in Dance. The MA program has revolutionized dance, and how I think about dance.

Here’s what I wrote in response to the proposed cuts, and the power that I believe dance has for all bodies, particularly in the 21st century.

Sign the petition to save the undergraduate major at Mills College!

Dance is not just movement. Dance allows us agency over the one thing we all have: a body.

What’s in a body? Our selves, our being, our identity. Our family histories. Our presence. Every place we have ever been, seen, heard, and walked through. Everything we have ever done.

Dance is not an activity relegated to the elites of society, the super-bendy, the strong, or even those with four limbs. Dance is for anyone with a body.

Dance has been the realm of the subaltern, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the activist, the protester, the visionary. Take away everything else, and we still have our bodies. With our bodies we express our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations… our fears, our pain, our sorrow, our anger, and our joy. We are rebels, yes, and our cause is justice.

Dancers are some of the most mindful, community-oriented, well-rounded people I know.

Dancers in higher education must be leaders, exceptional team players, fast learners, and problem solvers. We are motivated. We are always striving to improve ourselves and those around us. We are interdisciplinary. We work with lighting designers, set designers, costumers, seamstresses, musicians, visual artists, writers, historians, social scientists, psychologists, politicians, programmers, biologists, chemists, and physicists. Some of us are these things. Dance teachers are a hybrid of instructor, psychologist, physical therapist, body-worker, analyst, scientist, and community leader. And even though we are the most underpaid, underfunded, and under-appreciated art, we are very much equipped for life in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch.

So what happens when we as a society start chipping away at dance in higher education? We eliminate the one discipline that allows humans agency over their bodies, themselves, their identity, their very essence. You take away the voices of the marginailized, the disadvantaged, the minorities. Dance is one of the few disciplines not dominated by cis-white-hetero men.

You can’t take our bodies away from us, and we will fight for dance as long as we have agency over our bodies.

You might see this as “just” eliminating the Dance Major. But we see it as an affront to our entire art form. Centuries of struggle, expression, and fighting for social justice. We see it as an affront to our very bodies.

Do you dare take dance away from us?

Sincerely,
Abigail Keyes