Why You Should Foster a Mindful Dance Practice

What does it mean to foster a mindful dance practice?

Fostering a mindful dance practice blog post by Abigail Keyes

Mindfulness Is Good For You

Being mindful, according to experts in the field, is the act of noticing your feelings, environment, and physical sensations without judgement. It is the opposite of what we might call “checking out” or being on “auto-pilot.” Being mindful means ignoring our Ego and our “Monkey Mind.” And even though it has roots in Buddhist meditation and philosophy, it can be quite secular.

Some of the most powerful business leaders are investing millions of dollars on mindfulness workshops and retreats for their employees. Marc Benioff of the San Francisco-based company Salesforce famously consulted with Vietnamese Zen monks to improve employee well-being, and Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program has a 6-month long wait list.

A number of scientific studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness meditation are less likely to have a wide range of illnesses, from heart disease to depression. Those who exhibit trait mindfulness—that is, those who make mindfulness an inherent habit rather than just a deliberate practice—are even healthier.

Mindfulness also has a profound positive impact on our interpersonal relations, allowing us to observe our emotions and the emotions of others before reacting. It can even reduce implicit age and race bias. Whoa.

Dancers Are Already Mindful…

Dancers by nature practice a kind of mindfulness when we go to class. When we integrate new movements into our bodies, we must be aware of the present, listening to our bodies, observing our instructor… hopefully without judgement.

When a class is just challenging enough, we are forced to be present if we want to physicalize what is expected of us. Maybe it means remembering a full combination or doing a difficult technical element. We can’t mentally check-out if we are to integrate these movements into our bodies.

When it comes to mindfulness, dancers have a leg up. (Pun alert.) Afterall, dance technique is really just fancy habits, and habits are what we do without thinking.

…But Sometimes Not Enough

But what about those movements that we know? What about that repetitive drill that we’ve done a bazillion times or that choreography we’ve been running for five years? You know… those exercises that when your teacher asks you to do them, you might go, “But I know this already!”

It’s super easy to go through the motions and take a mindless approach to these elements of our dance practice, letting our bodies take the lead.

We dancers often rely heavily on “muscle memory” to get us through a rehearsal or performance. It can be easy to let our body do the work, and it should. There is a certain amount of automaticity that must happen in our bodies for us to do our job. But sometimes that doesn’t always mean transcendent mind-body connection. A recent study compared practitioners of Vipassana meditation with a sample of dancers, and found the meditators had a greater integration of mind and body.

I’m sure you’ve noticed when a dancer is not being mindful in class or rehearsal. Maybe there’s that one who doesn’t know how long their arms are and keeps running into you. Or maybe there’s a fellow company member who keeps making the same mistake over and over again. Or that one who just doesn’t integrate a doable correction, no matter how many times the instructor or director reminds them.

These dancers could benefit from taking a moment to reflect and observe their bodies.

Chances are that if you noticed these mistakes, you made a judgement call on them. Maybe a little mindfulness could help you, too!

Dance is Always New, Even When It Feels Old

Every day we step into the studio or on the stage, we must take a moment to take account of our bodies. Every day is different. Weather, hormones, a bad day at work, a fight with our significant other can all affect our movements.

When we give ourselves a moment to acknowledge those changes, and, most importantly, accept them, our time in class and rehearsal can be more productive and more positive.

A mindful dance practice also allows us to find the newness in material that might no longer interest us or challenge us. Every dance form has those movements and techniques that we must do over and over again, whether it be a part of our warm-ups or performance. But as performers, we cannot afford to get bored, because our audiences will feel that lack of engagement. They’ll know that we’ve checked out and let rote muscle memory do the heavy lifting.

And as a dance teacher, I can tell when my students are checking out. And I can tell you that it sometimes gives the impression that they don’t care about the work. Ouch.

Small Ways to Be More Mindful While Dancing

Many dance classes have repetitive warm ups, or at least movements that repeat every time. Instead of just going through the motions, observe yourself as you do these exercises. Are you putting your full attention into them, or is your mind wandering? If it wanders, breathe, and focus on the intent of the exercise.

Personally, I like to focus on different body connections as I dance. What is the relationship between my fingers and my toes? The crown of my head and my sacrum? My right and left halves? What about your facing in the room? Taking account of how these shift as I move gives my Monkey Mind more than enough to chew on, allowing my more active thinking to focus on the task at hand.

The next time you learn a combination or new dance, how can you best be mindful not only of your own body but the space around you? Maybe you are that dancer with the long arms who runs into fellow students. Notice when this happens, and observe how much space you need without popping someone else’s space bubble.

At the end of class or rehearsal, take note of how you feel. Were you happy with yourself or frustrated? Did the teacher give you feedback? Did a fellow student’s behavior affect you? How did it make you feel? Do you think you did well? Reflect, but don’t judge.

I feel that I’m just beginning to integrate mindfulness into my dance and teaching practice. Is this something you do, either as a teacher or student? Tell us in the comments!





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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