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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24 thoughts on “How Can We Belly Dance with a Clearer Conscience?

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m especially proud of how you were able to not shy away from the problems but present it in a reconciliatory manner. I do believe approach matters if we want people to listen and not immediately get defensive, but ultimately they need to understand, as you said, it’s not about them! You rode that tricky line of laying it out while still appealing to be heard. High five!

    This is a problem that I think has been ignored by too many for too long. It’s time to ask a lot of difficult questions, dear belly dancers, and do something. I feel the timing is especially critical right now, given the cultural and political climate of the US to reach out to, work with, and support our Arabic friends, and not just take the parts we like from them and look the other way as their oppression amplifies.

  2. Thank you! I agree with all your points and I think this a very important discussion to have, especially right now, given our broader social and political context. I love your very sober attitude towards fusion, and the reminder that it is not about a free-for-all. I think a lot of people utilize bellydance in a very selfish way for self-promotion only, to feel sexy or beautiful, and not for any real love of the dance or the music. I am glad that you brought this up and I am excited to see where the discussion goes.

  3. This is a very good overview of a very real problem that often becomes very inflammatory and hostile. I believe that it is very necessary to study, respect and try to understand the cultures that our dance form was born in. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessments and I would love to see more articles addressing some of these issues individually, maybe with some good reference material cited.

    • Hi Dian – Thanks for the comment. I’ve embedded quite a few links throughout the piece, particularly in the first few paragraphs. If you’re looking for reference materials on other subjects, let me know, and I might be able to point you in the right direction, or at least to someone else who can.

  4. It seems to me that practicing the folk art (which bellydance is) of another culture shows love and appreciation for that form, although it is impossible to imbue it with the same qualities that the people of the original culture do. At best it is a form of imitation. At the same time, one can feel anger/disapproval at the oppression that these people experience in their own culture. One can love the art and the people that practice it and not all aspects of the culture that it comes from. This is one of the paradoxes of life.

  5. Do you think there is a way to use belly dance to combat the anti-Middle Eastern prejudice sweeping through our country? I try to add a short didactic piece about what belly dance is and it’s origins when I dance at community center type events, but what would be the best way to go about this, what messages to share?

  6. And I have another question – what do you mean by ‘white-passing’? I’ve only seen this term used in a mildly pejorative sense. Do you mean those of us who don’t look obviously Middle Eastern (but may be in part)?
    Thanks

    • Great point. So, for me, I’m part Hispanic. But I look white. Therefore, I am treated with the privilege that white people are afforded in American society. I’m not discriminated against for being part Hispanic, because I don’t look or speak like a Lopez. So, I pass. It would also apply to people, as you say, are part-Middle Eastern but look more “white.” I don’t consider the term pejorative, but, yeah, I’ve heard it used that way, too.

  7. Good luck keeping me from dancing when I hear saidi! I try to make me movements very micro when at a performance. Ha! When the mizmar come in, I am doomed! I kinda object to the whole “too white to belly dance” thing, given some of the very pale Iranian women I’ve seen, but that’s a whole other thing. My biggest concern is dancing to something that’s inappropriate to dance to. Right now I couldn’t tell you the name of the tune, but I once heard something that sounded like a chiftatelli, but it sounded like it could be religious from lyrics I thought I heard. Are there popular rhythms incorporated into songs of worship? I am all for learning culture and don’t see how one could completely divest from it in their dance practice. The most common thing I hear that annoys me to no end is people referring to the music as Indian. I mean obviously it can be, but it’s such a distinctively different sound!

  8. What a thoughtful and illuminating article! Thank you. I practice ‘Bollywood’ dance, which is less problematic as, coming from movies, it is already stylised and largely removed from Indian folk dance. I am happy to say my troupe of white women is very lucky as our Gudjarati teacher conveys snippets of the cultural references as we practice. I am now married to a Gudjarati man and we attend various festivals. I can promise that engaging more fully with the culture behind the moves increases one’s enjoyment of the dance style.

  9. I might actually be interested in contributing a guest post about dancing as a first-generation American, if you’re open to non-academic contributors and if you’re comfortable with that being a thing!

  10. Thanks so much for this piece. I have thought a lot about these issues in relation to my own study of West African dance and drumming, but have not encountered a lot of this sort of reflection. I look forward to finding more to read on appropriation in dance. I am hoping to make the panel discussion end of this month. Thanks again

    • Thank you for the comment. Is there a lot of discussion about appropriation in West African dance? It seems that in belly dance, it is a very hot topic right now.

      • I haven’t come across much dialogue on the topic of appropriation in West African dance, no. But I may not be looking in the right places. It’s not as widespread as belly dance, and I think the demographics of the West African dance community are different. I get the sense that West African dance instructors (who are not from the places of origin of the dances they are teaching) stay pretty close to the cultural roots of the dances they teach. You really can’t teach it without pretty good knowledge of the music and cultures. I’ve been taking classes for over a decade from a wide range of instructors (both American and West African), and that’s the impression I have gotten. Worth noting that my knowledge is limited to the two regions I’ve lived in since I started.

  11. I’m a 60-year-old considering returning to Belly Dance after an 80 pound weight loss to try to get my stomach, waistline, upper arms and abs in better shape AND because I love and miss this art form. Way back in the late 70’s through the early 80’s I took lessons and the instructor who was 10 years older befriended me and I got private, additional lessons while there. I am feeling REALLY old with all this “cultural appropriation” ridiculousness! This is something invented by people who need something to protest. Back when I was in the midst of these lessons, I was also dating a Saudi man who was living in the US taking pilot training. His friend from Kuwait would hang out with us. They both knew I was taking belly dance and were not the least offended by this very fair skinned blue-eyed redhaired American woman “appropriating” their dance! That was not even in our vocabulary or our thought processes. In fact, they danced for me! In their culture, like at weddings, the men dance in one room with the men, and the ladies dance in another room with the other ladies. I lived in a Muslim culture as a little girl in Morocco and saw my first belly dancers there in a tent at a festival. Those ladies were fat by modern American standards and were covered from the neck down with only their feet, hands, and heads showing with a coin belt on. Dancers in that culture who dance in the company of men are looked down upon but it is done regularly. I just think we need to enjoy what we enjoy, be respectful and not be offended or put off by others criticizing what we do. At my age, I’m too old for that silliness!

  12. Know something about the music and dance and culture that you are using. I have seen bellydance to Debke music without the slightest hint that the dancers knew what Debke was at all. I love the Zar and the 2/4 rhythm, but if you don’t add any zar/head movement of any kind, I get a little hot under the collar. How about give a damn, at least a little. Other than that, I am just not into overthinking the whole thing.

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