Why I’m Glad Belly Dance in the US Is Declining

What a headline, right?

Class numbers are dwindling. Festivals are disappearing. Bellydance Superstars is long gone. And who even watches an actual instructional DVD anymore?

Well, that’s right. I’m glad that belly dance in the US is on the out and out.

But, wait, you say! How can someone who has invested some serious time and resources into being a belly dancer, and who earns a substantial part of her income from teaching belly dance, say such a thing? Why would I celebrate what Laura Tempest Zakroff calls “The Toilet”?

Hear me out…

Abigail Keyes: Why I'm Glad Belly Dance in the US is Declining

We’re Doing Some Much-Needed Soul Searching

Of the dancers I have contact with, both in and out of the Salimpour School, there is a sense that it’s long overdue that non-Middle Eastern dancers own up to the fact that the popularity of belly dance was built on the exploitation, stereotypes, and fantasy of an exotic Orient.

For decades belly dance has been the locus of an e(x/r)oticized, feminized fantasy, where (mostly white) women have sought sisterhood and a refuge from the toxic masculinity that many of us deal with day in and day out.

But many dancers are realizing that using belly dance as an escape from the troubles and toils of daily life is just not appropriate, and is, for lack of a better word, appropriation.

Owning Up to Orientalism

And while I still believe that the term “cultural appropriation” doesn’t really address what it’s really about (that is, cultural imperialism, the systemic imbalance of social and political power, and outright racism), related discourse in mainstream media outlets has forced belly dancers to take a good hard look in the mirror and decide whether or not we still want to practice this dance form. I might not agree with Randa Jarrar that white women need to stop dancing, but her article stirred up some much-needed discussion in a dance form rife with white-dominated Orientalist fantasy.

Those of us who are sticking around—and who aren’t from the culture or origin—have to do the difficult work of owning up to wrongs we might have committed, and that kind of work isn’t for the casual hobbyist who just wants to shake it with her “sisters.” (Also, gender isn’t a binary. Using belly dance as an “all women” space is inherently exclusionary and historically inaccurate. But that’s a post for a different day, and oh, hey, Kamrah already wrote it.)

Finding Other Movement Arts

Many former belly dancers are realizing that doing this professionally takes a lot of effort, time, and unpaid labor to practice responsibly. Some of us are sticking around, and others are deciding it’s not for them.

I’ve noticed that quite a few dancers who started belly dance in the early 2000s have moved on to other alternative movement forms, such as aerial arts, hooping, flow arts, burlesque, and niche fitness practices. That’s awesome! Many of these movement forms don’t carry with them the same cultural legacy and responsibility that belly dance does. (Of course, movement arts such as poi and fire staff DO have cultural histories in the dances of Polynesian peoples, but I leave that to practitioners of those forms to discuss those connections.)

Figuring Out Why We’re Belly Dancing

As a traveling dance instructor, I have the opportunity to talk to many practitioners in diverse communities throughout the world. My most recent trips and interactions have revealed a sense of “Why are we doing this?” and dancers asking the question, “Why do I care?”

When we ask ourselves these questions, not just about dance, but about any activity in which we are involved—be it a hobby, a job, or a relationship—this introspection can reveal much about ourselves. It can also give us clues on what to do next. Do we keep dancing? If so, why?

Dancers are reevaluating what they really want to get out of belly dance. For some, it might just be a once-a-week class, and for others they have made it a career. Either way, many dancers I’ve talked to lately seem to be reflecting on their desires and goals for being involved in belly dance.

Some people have figured out that belly dance isn’t for them. And, yes, means fewer people at festivals, workshops, and classes, which also means less money circulating throughout the industry and community. But it can also means that those who are continuing their involvement are very invested in it.

We’re More Invested in Learning

With the (temporary) fading of belly dance from the public eye, that means fewer students who are looking to feed their egos by teaching and performing well before they are ready.

From my view, the dancers that I’m teaching on a weekly basis are more invested in learning than performing. They want to know more about their bodies, technique, and, of course, cultural context. They’re not taking class to look cute in a sparkly costume. In fact, it’s almost difficult to get people excited about performing.

The dancers that we’re attracting at the Salimpour School are more mature, either in actual age or in attitude towards their dance practice. They are more humble with regard to whether they want to take the stage. They carry far less drama and ego with them into the studio classroom than students who are eager to perform, which is a relief and a joy.

Fewer Performances, Smaller Egos

Now many restaurants have closed altogether, and there are fewer restaurants featuring dancers, attracting smaller audiences, and the pay sucks. While this is shitty for the professionals (especially the pay part), it’s also less attractive to the 6-week wonders who would promote themselves as professional and undercut the rest of us.

And, at least where I am, there are fewer opportunities to perform. That might just be a Bay Area thing. But compared to Washington DC in the mid-2000s, when DCTribal was hosting events, and DC Tribal Cafe happened every month, and there were several Middle Eastern restaurants that featured performers, we were awash in performance opportunities. And audiences packed into those shows.

It seems like it has become far less likely for a young person to take up belly dance to become a “star.” Thank goodness.

Preparing for the Next Generations

This current downturn seems to be much like the one we’ve already seen in the 80s. At that time, dancers who stuck around were more likely to invest time and money into digging deeper into the history and culture of belly dance than the ones who started dancing in the 1970s to get in touch with their sexuality and to shock their “Leave It to Beaver” parents.

Belly dance will, I’m sure, see another resurgence, but it might be in another 30 years. In the meantime, I believe that in the diaspora, the dance will be in good hands.

Passing the Torch to the Millennial and Homeland Generations

Millennials (a label I am loathe to use but it’s what we’ve got) have far less time and disposable income than younger Generation X dancers like myself, or the Generation X and Baby Boomer-generation dancers who taught me. They’re far less likely to take a dance class just because it looks fun or different. They want to put their money where their values are.

Of the Millennial dancers that I see involved in belly dance today, they are far more aware of the social justice issues inherent in a contemporary belly dance practice. They want to talk about issues of cultural appropriation. They want to know how they can be more responsible when they dance. They actually come to lectures about history and culture. Those who pass as white are less afraid to check their privilege and give space to dancers from the culture of origin.

The even-younger Homeland Generation will be even better equipped to discuss and embody these complex topics, as they have grown up with social media that brings these issues directly to their personal profiles every day.

So just as fads come and go, so does belly dance. But before it returns to the popular spotlight, those of us who are still dancing must create the resources and foundations to empower the next generation.

Isn’t that a wonderful reason to stick around?

Want more about the heyday of belly dance in the 2000s?
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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.