Dance Bloggers Wanted for Guest Posts

Guest Posts Wanted!

A. Keyes Dance is looking for guest posts to keep the conversation going on belly dance in the 21st century. Do you have something to say about belly dance? Keep reading for guidelines.

 

A. Keyes Dance: Guest Posts Wanted

 

Submission Guidelines

Here’s what I’m hoping to get:

  1. TOPIC: How do you negotiate imperialism, colonialism, privilege, and stereotypes in your belly dance practice? Consider how you engage with Arab/Middle Eastern cultures, who you study with, what you read, how you train. If you primarily do a “fusion” form, how do you navigate that practice?
  2. Dancers of color and/or LGBTQ+ dancers are STRONGLY encouraged to contribute.
  3. Not primarily a belly dancer? Dancers in other traditions who are not from the culture of origin are welcome to contribute!

What will make me love your posts?

  1. 800-1000 words. No more, please.
  2. When referencing materials on the web, use embedded links.
  3. I prefer Chicago Manual of Style, but whichever style you choose, make it consistent. (Psst! I love the Oxford comma.)
  4. Coherent arguments. I’m not looking for PhD-level writing, but make sure your piece flows and makes sense.
  5. Stick to the topic. Rambling and unrelated subject matter won’t be accepted.
  6. Proofread it, please. Grammar matters to me.
  7. I don’t need to agree with you for me to want to publish your post.

If you’re feeling stuck, read my post on fostering non-oppressive practice and my post about Beyoncé and Orientalism.

Email your post in .doc/.rtf/.pages format to akeyesdance [at] gmail [dot] com. Include a short bio (150 words max) and a photo.

Looking forward to reading your work!

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How Can We Belly Dance with a Clearer Conscience?

Author’s note: The purpose of this post is to encourage self-reflection and caution against reactionary responses to accusations of “cultural appropriation” in belly dance. It seems that when this issue is brought up in popular online forums, white-passing dancers react in questionable ways that fail to acknowledge the issues at stake. I do believe that belly dance as a practice is at a tipping point in North America, one where we should make some very important decisions on how we continue to engage or disengage from this dance and the culture from which is comes. There are so many more facets to this phenomenon than I can address in a single blog post. I encourage responses to be civil, recognizing that there are people with feelings on the other side of the screen.


 

One of the greatest questions I think facing the practice of belly dance in the diaspora right now is…

Is it possible to practice belly dance with a clear conscience?

The answer: Maybe…

Your Fave (And Mine) is Problematic

I’ve heard of multiple instances where students of belly dance have either left the dance entirely or felt discouraged from continuing after they had learned about this dance form’s problematic issues: Racism. Colonialism. Cultural imperialism. Orientalism. “Arab-face.” Gender Essentialism. De-ethnicization. Exoticism. Cultural appropriation (may I recommend this philosophical essay and this article?). And that’s heavy stuff if you are a hobbyist who was only looking for something to do after work, have fun, get some exercise, and maybe meet a few new friends. It might feel even heavier if you perform this dance form, and heavier still if you teach it. If you continually ask yourself and others the right questions, you can bear the weight and continue to belly dance.

Can we belly dance with a clear conscience?
The first time you encounter an article or blog post or discussion that suggests that belly dance—and by extension, you, particularly if you are white-passing—might be engaging in an oppressive dance practice that takes power and visibility away from already marginalized/colonized/oppressed peoples, it’s easy to be shocked. It’s easy to be angry when someone accuses you of thinly-veiled (see what I did there?) racism. It’s easy to get defensive. It’s easy to respond with “But… I’m not a racist!” and to make it all about you. It’s easy to say that you love this dance because it’s beautiful, it makes you feel empowered, you love the way the movements make you feel, it’s brought you “community” (or “sisterhood,” but I encourage you to re-examine the use of that word), that “it’s all dance” (yes it is, but don’t then turn around and explain how you love belly dance over ballet because you think ballet is all about body-shaming or isn’t meant for the “curves of a real woman’s body”), or that “it’s all fusion” (yes it is, but that doesn’t absolve some decisions from being questionable).

…and note how “I love Arab culture and music” isn’t in that list. (Spoiler alert: It should be.)

Many an academic article, blog post, and social media discussion has tried tackling theses issues. The authors of these materials range from the life-long scholars and practitioners with deep knowledge, understanding, and experience to those who are only looking to ruffle feathers, make themselves look like like they have the moral high ground, and use activism as performance. These expositions of belly dance often highlight the most egregious and offensive examples of the above issues, but rarely do they ever offer practitioners advice for how to engage in belly dance while avoiding perpetuating problematic issues.

Big Questions, Small Ego

In the 21st century, as the academic post-colonial discourse of Orientalism, critical theory, and race theory enters the common vernacular, practitioners of belly dance in North America need to ask themselves some big questions. (I speak to North America only because that is my personal perspective, and I don’t feel like I can address the issues that dancers in Western or Eastern Europe might face, although there is certainly some cross-over). These questions require humility and a big, scary ego check, and go far beyond doing this dance “correctly” or “incorrectly”:

  • When I feel under fire for my artistic decisions, how can I step back and reflect before reacting?
  • If I wish to continue, how can I adjust my practice to be as non-oppressive as possible?
  • How can I find a mentor who maintains and promotes a culturally-responsible practice?
  • If I am an instructor, should I continue to teach, or should I further educate myself before teaching again?
  • How will I listen to and make space for practitioners from the culture of origin?
  • When I see someone else making questionable artistic decisions within the context of belly dance, how can I call them in, as opposed to calling them out?
  • How can I continue to educate myself about these issues without burning out?

Asking yourself questions requires being deferential and humble. It requires that you set aside your ego and (possible) aspirations for constant performance and self-adornment for the sake of respecting and honoring the culture from which this dance comes, and more importantly, the people from that culture (these people who are not a monolith, who each have their own differing opinions about what’s offensive and what’s not). These are treacherous psychological and sociological waters, and there are no right answers.

No Clear Answers, aka Hybridity Is Messy

Being a dancer of any genre requires constant self-reflection, asking questions, research, and of course, conversing with dancers who have come before you. In our case, that means professionals who are from, have worked in, and lived in the Middle East,* as well as the many scholars whose life work has been the study of Middle Eastern dance. There are many instructors and professors who have a lifetime of experience in this dance form who will gladly mentor you, answer your questions, and give you guidance. We are practicing and performing a dance with an incredibly complex and tangled history and relationship with the embodiment of power, race, sexuality, gender, and self. You owe it to yourself to learn from those who have paved the way before you, even if their own artistic choices were problematic. It is a learning process, not a learning end-point.

This dance form is inherently hybrid, transcultural, and transnational. To essentialize it as only “Middle Eastern” or “Arab” or “Egyptian” denies it its cross-continental influences and history as a living, changing dance form. But we also must recognize that hybridity doesn’t allow us the privilege of turning a blind eye to aspects of our practice that, once identified, make us uncomfortable or that, frankly, are a little bit racist (and of course there are the people who will always think that a white-passing body performing belly dance—regardless of aesthetic, artistic, or emotional quality or cultural knowledge—is always racist). We must also accept that its 100+ years long hybrid history in North America does not absolve us from cultural responsibility, because so much of that history—from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, to the Little Egypt phenomenon, to the Hootchy Cootchy; to the self-Orientalizing American Middle Eastern nightclubs of the 1970s; to adoption of belly dance by second-wave feminists as an expression of independence, sexuality, and empowerment—has been an embodied fantasy of an exoticized (and often eroticized) Middle East. That is the legacy we have inherited. How will we continue forward?

Multiple Paths in the Name of Non-Oppressive Practice

A mindful and non-oppressive practice isn’t easy. I struggle with it every day. Admitting you might have been wrong, offensive, inappropriately appropriative, or oppressive isn’t easy. To hear someone tell you that you should perhaps cease practicing and performing a dance form that has brought you so much joy isn’t easy. Reflecting on your artistic and creative decisions isn’t easy. Anyone who tells you that this dance form is easy is trying to separate you from your money.

Cultivating a culturally-respectful practice is much like hiking a winding, muddy, sometimes treacherous path. Sometimes we will follow along another’s trail, using their knowledge and asking them questions along the way. Sometimes we are on our own, hacking through the proverbial foliage in our quests for personal authenticity and truth.

We will disagree with each other on how to navigate these potentially confusing directions. But we all have our own moral compass (except if you’re a sociopath, in which case, nothin’ but a therapist is gonna help you), but we must choose to use that compass to help us find our way. When we read articles or post on social media about how belly dance is problematic, we can not ignore our compass, turn away, and say that we are not part of the problem.

How have I oriented (haha) myself in all of this discourse? I accept that that I am in a constant state of inquiry, and that my approach to a culturally-responsible practice will be in constant flux. I also believe that if you wish to study belly dance, and call it “belly dance,” (and especially “fusion belly dance”) then you must absolutely study Arabic music (as well as the Turko-Armenian American nightclub classics). This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever dance to non-Middle Eastern music or experiment; I’d be a flaming hypocrite to even suggest an absolute like that. But if you are a “belly dancer,” especially one who sees themselves as a “professional,” knowing Arabic rhythms and instruments should be a given. Understanding maqamat, knowing the great singers and composers, a familiarity with pop stars, is not optional. Physicalizing different stylizations, from sai’di to khaliji to Turkish Orientale, while understanding their origins, is part of being a well-rounded performer. Embodying Arabic music in its historical and political contexts is at the heart of understanding and embodying this dance form. In addition, if you are worried about being “appropriative” and wish to continue studying and performing belly dance, then you must accept that your practice will include continuous inquiry and engagement with the culture from which this dance comes. To divorce the culture from the dance (and all of its messiness), and take from it only what appeals to you for the sake of your own performance and self-promotion is the very definition of an imperial practice.

And no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will always offend someone.** If that happens—and if you are white-passing it probably will—it will be up to you to examine your practice and ask yourself the hard questions: how can I reflect on and adjust my practice? At least acknowledge their point of view before writing off that someone as too “politically-correct” or “too sensitive.” Acknowledgement doesn’t always mean full agreement, and that’s all right.

You can always ask yourself more questions and question your assumptions. You can always look deeper into your artistic choices. You can always know more about the music, the poetry, the language, the aesthetic values, the history, the politics, and the people who have shaped belly dance and our perceptions of it. By admitting that you can always learn more is to ignore your ego, admit your faults, and foster a more culturally-responsible practice.

*Even the term “Middle East” presents Euro-centric view of the world. For this, a blog post, I will use it because it is the most common and easily recognized term for the region to which I refer: the Arabic-speaking world, North Africa, the Anatolian peninsula, and surrounding regions where solo, improvised, pelvic-articulated dancers are performed. Sometimes this region is referred to as the Eastern Mediterranean or West Asia/North Africa; however, these terms are far less common in popular discourse.

**It happened to me. And while I still disagree with the arguments and tactics taken by the accuser, I acknowledge their point of view. This person accused me of racist practice without ever engaging me in a conversation, asking me any questions, or even observing the work that I do. They used inflammatory language and protest methods to make my work look insensitive, ill-informed, and oppressive. You will encounter people like this, who will lump you and your work into the pile of Orientalist and exoticized belly dance that has become the dance’s main image in popular media.

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8 Reasons This Dancer Chooses a Whole-Foods Plant-Based Diet

Over six years ago, my now partner invited me over for a casual, friendly dinner. He cooked. Dinner. With dessert. It was delicious, wholesome, and healthful. We talked and talked for nearly six hours.

Needless to say, I was hooked.

What I didn’t mention was that it was a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based meal.

Since moving back home to California and moving in with my partner, I have kept to a mostly plant-based diet. Yes, my partner still cooks the meals in our household, for which I am eternally grateful… because I’m terrible at feeding myself. Before we moved in together, I was subsisting on microwavable Amy’s gluten-free mac and cheese, and other things that were ostensibly good for me because they were “organic.”

I’m not zealous about my diet, but I do try avoid straying too far for too long. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of imported Italian Parmesan with a Super Tuscan or Iberian Manchego with a Tempranillo. When I’m traveling, sometimes I have to choose between the meal with eggs and the meal with wheat (to which I am allergic). I also don’t judge my friends who order meat when we go out, nor am I offended by their meals.

plantbaseddiet

There are many reasons to go plant-based, both personal and global. Here are the reasons I stick to a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diet (WFPBD).

1) Weight management. I’m no longer the spry teenager who could eat cheeseburgers and fries for lunch every day. Seriously, I look at what I ate 20 years ago, and I marvel at how skinny I was. Granted, I was also figure skating 10-15 hours a week, but even so, my metabolism was much faster then than it is now. Alas, as I approach my late-30s, I can no longer indulge in too many fatty treats without seeing or feeling the consequences soon after.

The whole starches and protein-packed legumes in a WFPBD keep me energized and strong without the extra saturated fat of meats. But don’t take my word for it. Go check out Forks Over Knives for some dramatic and inspiring health transformations.

2) No calorie counting. I was never into calorie-counting to begin with, and I’m not detail-oriented or meticulous enough to do so. But I will say this: my partner cooks huge amounts of food. We don’t worry about calories, because there is almost no added fat in what he makes. It’s not a “no-fat” diet: we consume the naturally-occurring lipids in seeds, nuts, and avocados (because California)… just not a lot of them. The rest of our daily meals are bolstered with heaping piles of chickpeas, lentils, and other beans, as well as leafy greens, wild and brown rice, and whole-grain crackers.

3) Long-term disease prevention. A WFPBD can help prevent and even reverse heart disease and type-2 diabetes, and might even play a role in preventing some cancers (such as colo-rectal cancer). Several studies have shown even just reducing your consumption of meat can reduce your risk of these life-threatening illnesses.

In addition, a WFPBD can also reduce inflammation and the pain of auto-immune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (just go easy on the soy products!). As someone with a mild auto-immune condition, and whose family has a history of heart disease and type-2 diabetes, the WFPBD just makes sense.

4) Plants are cheap. The average cost of one of our home-cooked meals is about $4-5 a person. And we could probably make it cost even less if we bought dried beans and more bulk foods. UC Davis Integrated Medicine has a great list of ways to save even more with your plant-based diet and shows how a plant-based split-pea soup can potentially save you 1/3 the price of one made with ham. Darshana Thacker at Forks Over Knives created a delicious, yet austere, plant-based diet on $1.50 a day!

5) Reduced water consumption. I grew up in California in the 1980s, in the middle of one of our historic droughts. Water conservation has been ingrained into my psyche. I can’t even stand it when people run the water while they brush their teeth. (Seriously, why are you doing that? That water is literally just going down the drain.)

National Geographic’s guide to reducing water consumption says that someone eating a plant-based diet will “indirectly consume nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.” The 10-20 gallons saved by not showering every day or not flushing every time you use the toilet hardly even comes close.

6) Smaller greenhouse gas footprint. Replacing my decent gasoline-powered vehicle with a hybrid or plug-in isn’t a priority for me right now. Why part with a car that works fine and gets decent gas mileage already? But because I do feel a bit guilty about not investing in a more energy-efficient car, I know that my WFPBD helps reduce my greenhouse gas emissions in other ways. In fact, in 2011 the USDA found that a single 10,000-cow dairy farm in Idaho produced 3,575 pounds of ammonia, 33,092 pounds of methane, and 409 pounds of nitrous oxide per day. Eating plants is way easier on the bank account than buying a new Tesla, that’s for sure!

7) Overall sustainability. In addition to conserving water and reducing my carbon footprint, a plant-based diet is just more environmentally sustainable. According to a report from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “the US livestock population consumes more than 7 times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population,” and “the amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.” That’s a lot of land that could be used to feed humans or that could be returned to nature as open space.

8) I just feel better. After eating a plant-based diet for nearly six years, I just feel good. When I stray too far, eating too much cheese (which is nearly as addictive as opiates), consume too much oil or fatty foods, I feel sluggish and tired. When I return to my partner’s cooking, my body feels stronger, I have more energy, and I am (ahem) more regular. As a dance instructor and performer, I need to feel my best in the studio classroom and on the theater stage.

Of course, overhauling your diet is daunting and just not possible for everyone. But I do encourage my readers to reduce their meat consumption, and not just beef. Even just eschewing the meat once a week is great for your body and the planet. Do it for your heart, your health, and your environment.

Are you a plant-based dancer or athlete? What are your favorite recipes, tips, or tricks for eating well? Share in the comments!

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Beautiful items for sale!

 

As featured on the cover of the Modern Tribal Bellydance with Asharah DVD.

As featured on the cover of the Modern Tribal Bellydance with Asharah DVD.

(Psst… if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a special 10% off coupon for everything in my Etsy shop.)

I’m clearing out my stash of beautiful things. Lucky you!

Complete costume items, supplies, and prints of my art are all up for sale in my Etsy shop right now. Once these items sell, I will not be getting more of the same. Everything is from my personal collection, with the best intentions that they would end up on my costumes. There are a few items I inherited from my grandmother, including a gorgeous vintage Navaho silver and turquoise necklace.

Other items you’ll find:

  • Kuchi beaded tassels
  • Central Asian beaded medallions
  • Crystal and other assorted beads
  • Miao Chinese hair sticks
  • Reproductions of my own art
  • Two handmade costume bras
  • Costume skirts from Tombo Studio

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter and get your coupon!

Giclée print of my pen and ink art

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Dance Is A Radical Act

furious_dancing2One of my colleagues at Mills College wore a tank top emblazoned in bold letters: “Dance is a Radical Act.” I admit that at first, I did not understand what she or the shirt meant. Dance is art. Why should it be radical?

As I continued my study of dance history and theory, I realized… of course dance is radical. Dance expresses independence of body, thought, and expression. Dance has been a vehicle for protest and dissent (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Exodus”). Dance critiques warmongerers (Kurt Jooss: The Green Table). Dance exposes the heartbreak of marginalized communities (Kyle Abraham: Pavement). Dance challenges preconceived notions of itself (Yvonne Rainer: Trio A). Dance can satirize itself and critique the fetishization of marginalized peoples (Keith Hennessy: Bear/Skin). Dance can bring together disparate cultures and celebrate beauty and love (Mark Morris: Layla and Majnun). Dance allows the disenfranchised a physical and corporeal voice.

And within each of our bodies is incontrovertible truth. Even if we are denied truth through biased news outlets, corrupt politicians, and even from members of our own families, we still have our bodies. When deprived of political and social power, we still have our bodies. Oppressive governments, regimes, and political climates have tried to suppress dance for centuries. Look to the exile of the ghawazi by Pasha Muhammad Ali, the outlawing of hula under missionary rule in Hawai’i, the banning of the Plains Indians’ Sun Dance by both the United States and Canada, and many more. Dance is, indeed, a radical act.

For me, my worldview and dance are intrinsically linked. When I dance, I am expressing my physical and personal power. We make art that reflects what we value. I value truth, justice, kindness, compassion, cross-cultural understanding, inquiry, self-reflection, corporeal independence, and the pursuit of embodied knowledge. I believe that there are facts, and that the existence of facts is not and should not be controversial. Indeed, when I wrote the Salimpour Compendium, I sought to dispel many of the myths that surround belly dance, hoping to nip them in the bud, and provide a sound foundation for those new to the dance form who also wish to dig beyond the “wishtory.”

In these troubling times that might pit you against your fellow countrymen, neighbors, or family members, I hope that you reflect on what you truly value. Does your dancing embody those values? Do your everyday actions? What about who you vote for? Does your art align with your politics? If it doesn’t, how can these defining aspects of yourself be reconciled?

Dances need not always be political. But for those of us who are afforded the freedom to move, to take studio classes, to perform for each other or on stages, we must remember that dance is a fundamental act that has phenomenal power to both express and shape humanity.

I hope that you dance not only for yourself, but for all humankind.

 

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Adult Dancers: You Are Making Progress

getting-betterAdult students are often quite hard on themselves. We take all of our adult baggage into the studio classroom with us (and I use “we” because I do it too!), and expect to be able to do anything the teacher asks of us perfectly the first time.

Well, when put that way, it sounds a bit ridiculous. No one can do anything perfectly the first time. So why do we pressure ourselves like this when learning a new skill, particularly one as challenging as dance?

We adults should be kinder to our beginner selves. Being a beginner is an exhilarating and inspiring experience if we allow it to be. Not only does allowing ourselves to learn and make mistakes make the whole “learning new things” thing easier and less stressful, but our adult brains just don’t take in information as quickly and in as large amounts as they did when we were younger. In his book Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus notes that adults, with their limited time to practice and diminished brain plasticity, have to learn new information in smaller chunks than children. He also says that kids learn new things so quickly because their brains are growing and developing so quickly, they often have more time to devote to learning a new thing—unfettered by jobs, raising kids, household chores, and other “adult” responsibilities—and they are, of course, often way less self-conscious than adults are when learning something new. Being a child means learning new things every day.

Adults, however… we think people are judging us, and we have egos to feed, and we want to feel accomplished because we’re all grown up and that’s what grown up people do: they accomplish things and do them well, and we can’t possibly take up something new and look like a beginner again. That would be… embarrassing.

Dance isn’t easy. We do things in the studio that we often don’t do in daily life. That’s the appeal, isn’t it? We don’t do plies, 6-steps, or upper back curves while walking down the grocery aisle (well, I know some of you do, and keep on with your bad selves). So why do we expect to be able to do a new move or technique in the studio classroom the first time the teacher asks it of us?

Then if you do stick with dancing, you might not think that you’re getting better at all. There’s that phenomenon that happens that when you are involved in something regularly, it’s so difficult to see your progress in that activity. Or when you have children, you might not see on a daily basis how quickly they’re growing, but a relative who hasn’t seen them in a year will blurt out the inevitable, “Wow! They’ve gotten so BIG!” You look down at your kids and think, “Well, yes, but I see them everyday…”

That’s my job as an instructor, though: To see my students every week (or more), and also recognize the overall, long-term progress that they are making. I’ve had students for over a few years now who might not think that they have improved at all, but I can see how their technique is stronger, their timing more accurate, and their posture lengthened. And part of my job is to tell them that I do see it, even if they don’t see it themselves.

As students of anything, we must find instructors (and I suspect most teachers of anything) who can see the micro-level of the day-to-day—giving subtle technical and timing reminders and, of course, encouragements—as well as the macro, month-to-month, year-to-year progress that each student makes in their own time.

All of us will improve at our own pace. Some of us will progress very quickly, and others will have to take their time in a particular level or class for months, maybe years. It’s so easy for us as adults to compare ourselves to the other students in class, but we have to recognize that each of us is going to learn and progress in different ways. Each of us has our gifts and each of us has our challenges. And if you look back a year, you’ll see how much you’ve gotten better.

I guarantee that if you’re going to class regularly, you are getting better. There’s almost no other option but to improve!

 

 

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Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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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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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.


What are we seeing, anyway?

Many times I see fellow dancers commenting that they “Loved!” a performance that they saw, or that a performance was “Amazing!” without really qualifying or identifying why. Of course, it’s awesome if someone loves a performance, but if they can’t identify why, then I question whether or not they know what they’re looking at (ending a sentence with a preposition eek). Read More