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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Dance Technique is Fancy Habits

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

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

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.

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.

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.

 


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 and Ethics

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.

But I want to talk about the Ego.

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.

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.

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.

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 every thing we do today affects our tomorrow.

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

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.


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