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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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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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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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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The Secret to Better Dance Technique

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

But really, when you get down to it, the secret to good technique is knowing that it’s all just fancy habits.

The secret to better dance technique by Abigail Keyes

New Habits Are Not Always Easy

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

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

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

Habits Don’t Equal Mindlessness

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

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

Habits Require Mindfulness

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

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

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

 




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I Wrote You A Thing!

Yes, that’s write…. har har har.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available at the Salimpour School Online Store.


An open letter to the administration at Mills College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you dare take dance away from us?

Sincerely,
Abigail Keyes


The Ego, Ethics, and Dance

Let’s talk about the Ego.

I admit that I don’t have a background in psychology or even a strong background in philosophy… so if I get little nuances in definitions wrong, I suspect someone with more knowledge than I will call me out, and that’s ok.

Ego, Ethics, and Dance blog post by Abigail Keyes

The Ego Separates You from Me

Ego, in the strictest sense of the word means “I” in Latin. It is our sense of self. I am not you, and you are not me. It delineates each of us from one another.

In a contemporary context, however, Ego has taken on a larger and often more pejorative meaning. When we talk about someone having a “big Ego,” we mean that they are full of themselves, that they are self-centered, and that they are willing to make self-centered decisions at the expense of others. This contemporary interpretation is slightly different than the Freudian original, which included the psychological counterparts of the Id (primal drives) and the Superego (internalization of cultural and societal norms). For this blog post, I wish to use the more contemporary idea of Ego as a force that drives our need for recognition, praise, and attention.

Using Our Ego for Better Performance

In a performance context, the Ego can get the better of us. Dancers are notorious for wanting to please, to get the praise and approval of our teachers and peers, and to be on stage. We want to be seen and recognized. A friend of mine who is studying childhood development and dance said that we dancers are “Praise Junkies.”

The Ego, the self-driven aspect of each of us, is not entirely bad. The Ego allows us the confidence to take the stage without fear. It allows us to feel good about what we’re doing. It drives that dopamine rush to the head, that the Id then laps up like a thirsty dog. But the Ego is a trickster, a nasty beast that we must keep on a very short leash.

And I don’t think there are many other dance forms out there that placate and pander to practitioners’ Egos as much as American belly dance.

Focus on Performance and Appearance

So many of our festivals have been based on wanting to perform. Performance is an essential part of being a belly dancer; it is a performing art. But I think we must ask ourselves why we want to perform. Because we want our audience to tell us that we’re good? To show off our skills? Are we seeking validation? Are we hoping to be hired as an instructor at next year’s festival? To perform means, roughly, to do something with the intent of it being seen by others. We might seek validation from our peers that we are Enough, because, perhaps we are not Enough in other aspects of our lives.

So much of the business of belly dance is based on wanting to look good, whatever that means. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on costuming, photography, jewelry, and the costs required to attend the festivals that give us opportunities to perform, including lodging, transportation, and food. Even our workshop attendance fees feed our Ego. We take workshops that offer us quick and easy tricks that we can instantly incorporate into our own performances so that an audience will ooh and aah over us during that short 3-5 minutes that we are allowed on stage. Our performance times get shorter and shorter as festivals want to give more opportunities for dancers to perform… because the demand is there.

The Ego Influences Our Decisions

Our Ego, as it feeds our Id, blurs our vision. We are willing to make decisions that contradict our own ethics, because we want to look good and we want people to praise us. Maybe we don’t even examine how our Ego is affecting our choices.

This is why some belly dancers want to perform professionally and teach well before they’re ready. This is why many belly dancers often spend more time and money on costuming, travel to/from events in which they are performing, and one-off workshops than they do on deep and consistent training. This is why some belly dancers wish to take workshops with famous instructors, hoping that somehow that fame will rub off on them, that that famous instructor will ask them on stage with them, and somehow transform the student into a superstar.

The Ego drives these decisions. Every decision is a choice. Every choice we make determines our personal code of Ethics. Philosopher and psychologist William James aptly called this the “ethics of choice”: “What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment.” (James, Consciousness and Freedom, 41.) Basically everything we do today affects our tomorrow.

But what if we let our Ethics drive our choices, rather than our Ego?

Self-Reflection as Antidote to Big Egos

Self-reflection is paramount in the realm of Ethics. And self-reflection requires humility, and humility requires that the Ego take a back seat.

Take a moment and write out your answers to these questions: What do you stand for? What do you believe in?  To whom will you give your money? What are you willing to put up with as a student, a practitioner, a customer, a consumer? (A recent blogger wrote “What’s your Shit Sandwich,” i.e., what are you just not willing to put up with?) What are the values of the people, businesses, entities to which you give your time and money? What is your limit? Do you have one?

Are you going along with a crowd to look good, or because you truly believe in their cause? Are you defending someone only because they have something to offer your Ego? Are your decisions hurting others? How could you minimize that pain? Are you asking questions not only of others but of yourself?

Everything you do is a choice. Make those choices worth it.





Consistent Challenges are the Key to Improvement

All artists seek personal improvement, but what’s the secret?

About a week ago, I finished up my first year as a graduate student in dance at Mills College. My course work included four days a week of modern dance technique, ranging from Jose Limón’s/Doris Humphrey’s “Fall-and-Recover,” Martha Graham’s “Contract-and-Release,” Merce Cunningham’s split body awareness, and a myriad of contemporary and classic stylizations from the 20th and 21st centuries. I sustained a debilitating injury (minor tear of my biceps femoris hamstring) and have mostly recovered; I cried quite a few tears of pain and frustration.

My fellow students and colleagues have also struggled and triumphed. In addition, I have continued my training at the Salimpour School, beginning work on my Suhaila Format Level 5 and training for Jamila Format Level 4.

If I have learned anything at all in these programs, it is that consistent practice is key. But it’s more than just consistency: it’s consistent challenge.

Adult Students Aren’t Patient

Adults are a funny lot. Adult students often want the result without realizing the hard work it takes to get there. We see what we want, and we want it now. A friend of mine teaches cello, and many new adult beginner students have asked her how long it will take for them to play cello like Yo-Yo Ma.

Similarly, new adult students at the Salimpour School ask me how long it will take for them to certify Level 5 (the highest level of the program of which there are currently two dancers). The answer to these questions is complex. It depends on how hard you want to work, how much you want to be a master of your craft and your art. It will take you as long as it takes you, if you continue to work for it.

Hard Work Is The Answer

I will tell you what it takes to get there, though. Hard work. Consistent hard work that continually challenges your technical, creative, physical, and emotional limits. There will be tears. There will be frustration. There will be injuries.  …and there will be so many triumphs, joys, and accomplishments.

Many dancers talk about drilling, and while drilling can be an incredibly valuable element of becoming an accomplished dancer (no ballerina would ever go without doing her barre exercises), it is the difficult work that truly helps us grow. If you continue to drill, say, glute squeezes at a tempo that is manageable for you, it is unlikely that your dancing will ever improve dramatically. You’ll only ever be able to do hip work at the tempo at which you work in the studio. (Why would you want faster hipwork? Maybe that song you love calls for it at a particular part of the music.) If you drill them at a tempo that at first seems completely outside your abilities, but you keep a positive attitude and you work for it… ahh, then that’s where the palpable, embodied, and visible improvement lies.

Struggle Can Make You Stronger

Even plants benefit from struggle. Winemakers turn off irrigation to their vineyards in the summer, when the weather is hottest. You might think that this would cause the grapes to wither on the vine, ruining the crop, but it does the opposite. Turning the water off forces the roots to dig deep into the earth, and the vines grow grapes that have an intense flavor and rich sugars. The vines that struggle are the ones that have the potential to make a better wine.

Of course, humans are not wine, but when it comes to improvement, struggle is necessary.

Struggle Properly

In my training both at the Salimpour School and now at Mills College, my teachers ask of me work that I hardly ever thought possible for my own body. But I am tenacious. I continue to work to do movements and phrases that are just within my technical and emotional reach. I know there are things that might always be beyond my physical abilities, such as doing the splits, but I still keep working at those things.

My training might not bring me greater fame or visibility, it might not make me more money, and it probably won’t bring me love and adoration. I am not training for these fickle accolades. I train because I am in love with my own progress. I am addicted to the rush of reward chemicals that flood my brain when I can finally dance that combination on the left side without fumbling, when I can play that fast new finger cymbal pattern, or when I strike the final pose of a choreography that once seemed so outside my physical and technical abilities.

Your Work Is Never Finished… Celebrate That!

The lack of an endpoint might frighten some people, and it might discourage them. Why do something if you’re never done? For me, that’s why I do what I do. I see improvement in my work every day I show up for class. I also see it in my colleagues and my students. The students who don’t back away from a challenge are the ones in which I see the greatest improvement.

How do you get better at something? Do the things that you think you cannot do. There will be frustrations, there might be tears. That’s all right. If you can’t do them now, keep trying, and one day you will do that thing you thought you could not do. Celebrate that you did the thing. Then get back to work tackle the next challenge.

How do you keep yourself challenged in your dance practice? Tell us in the comments!





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