The Salimpour School: It’s Not What You Think

The Salimpour School has been around a long time. Since 1949, in fact. And in that time we’ve created a lot of history, trained a lot of dancers, and… and inspired a lot of rumors, half-truths, and genuine misconceptions.

Indeed there are a lot of, um, interesting perspectives out there about the Salimpour School: who we are, what we do, and what we teach. I’ve been studying here for over 10 years, and I wouldn’t spend thousands of hours and dollars on a program I didn’t believe in, with a mentor who didn’t believe in me, and who didn’t have a lifetime of experience and knowledge.

And thanks to a cognitive phenomenon called “anchoring,” it’s difficult to change your first impression of anything: a person, a place, an institution. Our brains actually hang on to the first thing we hear, regardless of whether or not we hear more reliable or truthful information to the contrary later.

So, if you’re not a part of the school, or maybe you’re just starting your certification journey, here are the top 5 things about the school I (and we) would love for you to know. Anchoring bias or not.

What You Don't Know About the Salimpour School

1) We’re actually quite nice.

Any institution that encourages hard work, virtuosity, and excellence is at risk of being labelled “snobby,” “elitist,” and “arrogant.” Just look at how many people regard Ivy League universities or professors in their so-called “ivory towers.” And thanks to something called “negativity bias,” you’re far more likely to remember and believe the bad things you hear about an organization, institution, or person, than the good things. Thanks, brain.

And yet, for the last three years when we’ve held our summer intensives, the love in the room is palpable. The dancers, regardless of certification level, have been supportive, generous, and humble. I have not heard one insult, nasty comment, or put-down. When dancers come back to the “Mothership” to train, they aren’t just working on their dance, they’re helping to build a worldwide community.

Personally, as an instructor, I always make a concerted effort—even with all of my awkwardness, social missteps, and general tendency to be an “absent-minded professor”—to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of skill or experience. I know that my fellow staff instructor, Parya, does the same. And Suhaila created her school to be a safe place for dancers to learn, grow, and train.

The dance studio should always be a place where students can experiment, make mistakes, and be vulnerable. In fact, vulnerability is a key element of what we learn in Suhaila Format Level 3. If we can’t be open and trust our bodies, how can we let the music drive us or inspire us?

2) We’re not a tribal style school.

Over and over again on Facebook groups and beyond I hear people who have never stepped foot in our studio talk about how the Salimpour School is all about tribal. Spoiler Alert: It’s not.

Yes, it is true that tribal style belly dance as we know it today would not have existed without Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat. But Jamila did not seek to create a new genre or style of belly dance. The dancers who performed at the Renaissance Faire in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the same dancers who performed in the Middle Eastern nightclubs in San Francisco. The costuming, venue, and presentation in Bal Anat was different, but it wasn’t a different “style.” And while she appreciates innovation, Jamila herself has said that she believes that if a dancer isn’t performing to Middle Eastern music then it isn’t belly dance.

Currently, there are many dancers in the tribal fusion genre who are using the Salimpour name in their class and workshop descriptions, acknowledging the impact that both Jamila and Suhaila’s methods have had on their dancing. Perhaps this is where the misconception started that the Salimpour School itself is tribal. Non-tribal dancers see the name and just assume that we, the school itself, are promoting “tribal style.” But what people don’t know is that many of those dancers haven’t studied with us directly in quite some time.

I’d like to set the record straight: We train dancers to be able to perform in as many styles as they prefer, with an emphasis on interpretation of and dancing to Arabic music.

3) We honor legacy, but we also change with the times.

When your school is one of the oldest belly dance schools in the US (in the world?), rolling with the punches and adapting to change is in your blood. Our curriculum is constantly changing to address current theoretical discourse and kinesiological concerns.

As the core instructor at the “Mothership” in California, I work very closely with Suhaila on integrating new approaches to teaching, current conversations in academia, and recent sports medicine research into our warm-up and class material. Nothing is static. As Suhaila herself has said, if you don’t move forward, you’re going to be left behind.

But, of course, we honor the contributions that Jamila made to belly dance in the United States. By naming steps and categorizing them, we can contextualize them, get a sense of where they are from, and embody them with a deeper understanding that goes beyond rote imitation.

Our curriculum is constantly developing according to student needs, current research, and program goals.

4) Our students are not clones.

Another concern I hear from dancers who are curious about the Salimpour but are, for lack of a better word, afraid of even coming to a class series (wah? why?), is that when dancers go through the program, they lose their individuality.

When I look back at my own performances before entering the higher levels of the Salimpour program, I see a lot of imitation. I imitated Artemis, Aziza, Dina, Mona El Said, Dalia Carella, Rachel Brice, and many other dancers who have inspired me. But now, when I watch myself dance, I see me.

Of course, my technique is very clearly Salimpour, but my movement is far more personally distinct than it was 10 years ago. Indeed, I have created my own style, crafted and sculpted through years of training not only at the Salimpour School, but with countless other instructors.

And then there are our Level 5 dancers who are authorized to teach Salimpour Format. Not one of us dances like the other. My style is very different from that of Sabriye Tekbilek, Rachel George, Angelique Hanesworth, Stacey Lizette, or Gina Bruno. When dancers go through our program, they are learning to find their own voice within the music to which they are dancing. None of us is here to dance like Suhaila. Only Suhaila can dance like Suhaila.

And only you can dance like you!

Which brings me to my final point.

5) Arabic music and culture are at the heart of our work.

And inherent in that, understanding the sentiment of classic Arabic songs, the complexity of the poetry, and the history of belly dance and related forms is essential for any dancer higher than Level 1 in our programs. Even in Jamila Format Level 1 we contextualize the steps with their origins and character. The Basic Egyptian family comes from the Golden Era dancers of the Egyptian silver screen; the Arabic family embodies the more reserved movements you’d see at a family party.

We explore this work the most in our two core workshops: The Choreography Development 5-day, and our Live Music and Improvisation 4-day. In these workshops, the music drives our interpretation, expression, and movement choices. And we’re only using Arabic music in these workshops (surprise!), so we must stay true to the original sentiment and context from which these songs were written. We also work on how to work with and interact with Arab musicians, including vocabulary, understanding maqam, and etiquette.

Many belly dancers don’t know that Suhaila worked a professional dancer in nightclubs not only in the United States, but also in the Arab world for 10 years. In that time, she performed with some of the top Arab singers in the Middle East, including Ahmad Adawiya, Amr Diab, and many others. Before that, she had traveled throughout the Arab world, researching the dance and integrating the steps she observed into her mother’s format until 1978. And it’s not like this is secret information. It’s been out there for at least 15 years.

Many dancers are seeking out training with dancers who have immersive “over there” experience, and yet our program is perceived to be too “Western” or “fusion.” But dancing to and interpreting Arabic music (and other music from the Middle East, of course) is at the heart of the Salimpour program.

Come see for yourself.

If you’re curious, come take a class or a workshop with us. We welcome all dancers, no matter what your shape, age, gender, or background. You’ll get stronger, meet some incredible people, and join a global community of deep-thinking and curious practitioners.

The Salimpour School offers workshops all around the globe.

Don’t see one near you? I offer authorized Salimpour Format workshops. Send me an email! akeyesdance@gmail.com


Countering Orientalism: Learning from Past Transgressions

As I put together my eBook of past blog posts from my now-defunct Bellydance Paladin blog, I came across an entry that I wrote telling the story of how I got into Middle Eastern studies and belly dance.

Countering Orientalism by Abigail Keyes

An Orientalist Childhood

In that post, I reveal that as a child I was always fascinated by things that appeared to be “Middle Eastern.” The tales of 1001 Nights. The “Arabian Coffee” divertissement in The Nutcracker. Magic carpets. Scheherezade. Genies. Disney’s Aladdin. When I look back with the hindsight of over 20 years of academic study—a degree in Near Eastern Studies, and a second degree in Dance Studies—I see a childhood rife with Orientalist fetishism.

There’s even an image of me, age seven, in a genie costume, complete with billowing sheer pantaloons and a pink face veil. The year was 1987. My mother, while being a self-taught expert on Western European and Californian history, knew little of Orientalism, and wanted to make her daughter happy. She made the costume because I wanted it. I wanted it because… honestly, I don’t know why. I just know I wanted to be that genie every damn year. Today, that costume would get a lot of side-eye.

Now, I’m sure some people will read that post and attempt to call me out on it.

But I’m going to call myself out.

Calling Myself Out

I fully admit that my early interest in the “Middle East” was based on Orientalist fantasy. Every image and idea I had of the region was filtered through the imperial gaze.

When I started to dig deeper, however, I realized that the images and archetypes that I had seen were, in fact, not real. I even felt a little betrayed.

At around age 13, I became very interested in the art of animation. When Disney’s Aladdin was released, it was a perfect combination of my latent Orientalist fascination and my love of the expressive and moving drawing. Disney released a companion book, Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film, which I immediately bought for myself.

In the chapter on the film’s overall look and feel, one of the background artists, originally from Iran, traveled to Tehran and Qom to take sketches and photographs. The author also tells of how the other artists were inspired by the sweeping swirls of Islamic calligraphy.

As a young teenager, just beginning to learn about the world, I had no idea that Islamic calligraphy, let alone Islamic art, was even a thing. I had heard about Islam in passing, but I knew no name for the intricate geometric designs and flowing script until then. And I wasn’t completely unaware of it before; being southern Spanish, I was somewhat familiar with the Alhambra and “Moorish” art. Keep in mind that I was only about 12 years old.

But when we can name a thing, we can contextualize it, and learn more about it. And it took a film—one so obviously problematic, and that rightfully got a lot of flack from the Arab community upon its release—to get me there.

Using Orientalism as a Springboard for Deeper Inquiry

Because I had an insatiable curiosity, I decided to dig deeper. I began researching. When my parents and I made our annual trip to Washington, DC, to visit my grandparents, I insisted that we visit the Freer and Sackler galleries, where a temporary exhibition of illuminated Qur’ans from the Mamluk period in Egypt were on view. The beauty of these rare codeces captivated me so much that I bought a copy of the exhibit’s promotional poster, which I still have.

Through Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, I began discovering music from the region. When I bought Passion: Sourcesrecordings of songs from North Africa, the Middle East, Anatolia, and Central Asia—I listened to that CD (remember those?) over and over and over again. In my junior year of high school, I bought Shaabisation, a somewhat subversive recording of music from Morocco. Soon after, I picked up a copy of From Luxor to Isna, by The Musicians of the Nile. This was before I even started learning belly dance.

Through music, I began learning about the different cultures in the region. Teenage me learned, one song at a time, that they were not one big monolithic conglomerate, as the imperial Orientalist gaze would have.

20 Years Later…

Back then in the mid-1990s, the internet was barely a thing. We still called it the World Wide Web, and time online was billed by the hour, if you were lucky to have internet in your home at all. Researching anything back then was much more difficult, but I feel that I did what I could with the resources I had.

Back then, the US had just emerged from the debacle of the first Gulf War, and still reeled from rash of attacks on commercial airliners. The failed truck bomb attack at the World Trade Center had just happened. Most people in the US hadn’t heard of Al-Qa’ida. But they soon would, and Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who looked “exotic” would bear the weight of a new, violent American Orientalism.

For the average (white) American, the Middle East was shifting from a passive land of sensuality and sand to a nest of radicalized and irrational terrorists. Unfortunately, that image has not changed much, despite our greater connectivity to information and other cultures.

Whether it be the lack of visibility of Arab culture in the United States at the time, the rising fear of Islamism, or the failure of the US educational system to expose junior high students to the rich cultures of the Middle East, 12-year-old me did not have the resources to understand the region the way that 37-year-old me does today, or that 47-year-old me will in the future.

Moving Away From Orientalism

Today, I can look back and see that that my early interest in of Middle Eastern art, music, and culture, and realize was all filtered through an Orientalist lens. While I cannot change my past, I can make more informed decisions in my present and future.

Since then, I’ve made efforts to learn more, understanding that I am forever a guest in Arab and wider Middle Eastern cultures. I have seen the late Edward Said speak in person. I majored in Near Eastern Studies. I’ve studied Arabic. I’ve visited many of the sites that captivated me as a teenager: the Alhambra, the Great Mosque in Córdoba, the Citadel in Cairo, Topkapı Palace. I’ve become an Ambassador blogger for ArabAmerica.com, which seeks to share Arab culture with readers around the world. I’ve made efforts to demystify the Middle East for other non-Middle Eastern people who might not know where to start. I’ve scowled at Bernard Lewis in person. I stood beside my Arab and Muslim friends when they received threats after September 11.

I am still learning.

I am not perfect, and I am absolutely not a savior. My point is that we can, particularly if we belly dance, give back to the culture from which our dance comes.

And, of course, I will never know what it’s like to be Arab or Middle Eastern in North America, particularly in today’s political climate. I leave that to my friends of Arab descent to tell their stories.

Admitting Mistakes and Learning From Them

If you are a belly dancer not from the Middle East or North Africa, chances are that you’ve had similar experiences as mine.

Like me, you probably made some artistic choices that are a bit, well, cringe-worthy.

It’s important to be able to look back at our decisions and not only understand that some of them might not have been the most sensitive or educated, but also that we can learn from them. Instead of getting defensive and saying that what you did was “in the name of art” or that it’s “personal expression,” maybe take a step back and see how what you did might seem hurtful today. Would you make that same choice now?

Also, as you explore and self-reflect, understand that not everyone is at the same point in their journey as you are. Some people might just be learning about Orientalism. Some might have the lived experience of being Arab in North America. Some might be experienced historians, anthropologists, or sociologists in the field.

Respect where others are on this lifetime of exploration, and allow others to join the conversation. Allow people from the culture to speak. And when they do, listen.

Stay humble, and keep learning.

Do you have resources to share with dancers who might just be learning about these issues?

Share in the comments!




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Why You’re Seeing Ads

Yes, it’s true. There are now ads on my blog.

Why, you ask?

I’ve been blogging for nearly 10 years. It is a labor of love, but in order for me to keep going and writing insightful and well-researched posts, I need to get a little something to help pay for the domain name, the professional WordPress template, and the broadband connection.

Instead of charging you for content that you’ve been getting for free, I’m going the ad route. I’m trying to make them as unobtrusive as possible so that you can read my blog with few distractions.

You can, of course, download and install something like AdBlock to prevent these ads from showing up. I can’t stop you. I use AdBlock just to stay sane on the rest of the internet.

But I ask that when you’re here, could you disable and “Whitelist” my site?

Every little cent helps keep this site alive and kicking.

Thank you for understanding!

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Obligatory ad, because you’ve been warned.




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!





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).
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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

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Giclée print of my pen and ink art





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 dance 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?

Adults need more time to learn

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?

Stick with it

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.

Everyone improves at their own pace

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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