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What We Get Wrong About “Fusion” Belly Dance

Is It Actually Fusion?

More than 10 years ago, when I was experimenting with what I now like to call “interpretive” belly dance (i.e., “fusion”) I once thought that doing belly dance movements was enough for me to call something “belly dance fusion.” I was still doing hipwork, undulations, and all the pelvic and torso articulations that are at the core of what make belly dance Belly Dance. Even in my interpretive sets, I played finger cymbals.

But now, I look back and see a dancer who separated belly dance movements from their cultural context. Why? Maybe I was just young and rebellious. Maybe I didn’t want the responsibility. Maybe I just wanted a means of expressing my angsty 20-something self. I mean, look at this dark, broody girl.

Looking back now, I’m not even sure I would call what I was doing “Belly Dance” with a capital “B” and a capital “D.” Experimental? Sure. Interpretive? Definitely. Fusion? Eh… not so much. What was I fusing? I still can’t really answer that question.

The older and more experience I have with this dance form, and the more I study dance in general, I realize that I was wrong about my performances being “fusion.” And that’s all right.

Hybrid vs. Fusion

When it comes to dance forms mingling and mixing, I tend to prefer the term “hybridity.” Yes, they kind of mean the same thing, but there are subtle differences.

The way I see it, hybridity comes from long time study of two or more movement forms and/or traditions, so that they blend together in the practitioner’s body. The movements become part of their physical essence, interplaying and intertwining in the same time and space. They mix and mingle, blending together organically and with ease.

I would go so far to say that hybridity comes from humility. The dancer submits themselves to the dance forms and the legacy, history, and cultures from which they come, letting them seep into their body. The dancer surrenders to the movements, letting the movements wind their way through their physical selves. They allow it to happen.

Whereas, I see “fusion”—at least in belly dance contexts—as being something more forced and perhaps more superficial. The dancer is trying to blend something together, rather than allowing them to blend together. The word “fusion” has taken on a connotation that there is effort behind the creation.

In my eyes, hybridity builds from the foundations and goes upward. Fusion is often imposed from above.

Trying to Make Something New

When dancers try to come up with something “new,” it often seems like they are doing so just for the sake of it. It’s a “top-down” approach to dance-making.

And, truth be told, sometimes these dancers are trying to sell you their “new” thing. Humans love novelty, so it’s an appealing business strategy.

If we really look at many dancers claiming to perform “fusion,” we often find that the dances aren’t even a fusion. They’re a patchwork. The phrases feel choppy, unrelated, and piecemeal. A shimmy here. Some Flamenco arms there. A mudra and some Odissi footwork followed by rib cage locks. It’s a bit like reading a string of unrelated sentences.

They’re kind of like this paragraph: A dog barked in the distance, but I really love that new coffee shop down the street. The dragons unleashed their fire upon the dwarf village, and the office worker sighed as another day dragged on.

Dances like that aren’t fused at all. The movements are sequential rather than integrated together. They’re more “mix-and-match” than blended. The dancer hasn’t, as my mentor likes to say, “marinated” in the movements.

That is, the movements aren’t yet a part of the essence of the dancer.

So… What Is Hybrid Dance?

So, you might be asking for some examples of hybridity rather than a patchwork of dance.

I consider what Suhaila Salimpour has done with her hard contraction isolations and her jazz footwork to be true hybridity. She studied intensely with jazz and street dancers, constantly asking herself, “How can I ‘belly-ize’ this?” The characteristics of belly dance are still there, especially when she dances to Arabic music.

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet company also exemplifies hybridity. His work blends classical ballet training, including pointe work, with West African dance, contemporary, and jazz. In this piece, “Ocean,” you can clearly see the turned-out ballet foot positions while the dancers’ upper bodies expand and contract in a West African modality.

And if you scroll through Amy O’Neal’s instagram feed, you might first notice that she calls herself a “hybrid choreographer,” but you’ll also see how she seamlessly integrates old and new school hip hop, house footwork, and contemporary dance. She and I have had some fantastic conversations about hybridity and privilege, too.

What Sets Hybridity Apart? Cultural Connection

So, this all goes back to what I was hinting at the beginning of this post.

What good is movement without cultural connection and context?

Alonzo King operates within the cultural context of ballet, that is the stage, but clearly stays rooted in other forms. Suhaila worked for years in the Arab world, and grew up in a Middle Eastern family; today the Salimpour program emphasizes cultural context as well as technical prowess. And Amy spent her teenage years in the clubs, and regularly enters dance battles and presents works for the stage.

The culture is evident in the body of work.

Dance is Culture and History

I continually refer back to and refer others to an article by Joann Keali’inohomoku called “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as Ethnic Dance.”

Her premise is that all dance is “ethnic dance,” but dance scholars (at the time she wrote the article in the late 1960s) tended to see ballet as the “default” and other non-Euro-American forms as “Other.”

However, all dance forms reflect the values, ideals, and history of the people who dance them. Classical ballet embodies the values of a Western European aristocracy, performed on proscenium stages, using French terminology, telling of European folk and fairy tales. It’s Western European ethnic dance.

All dance forms have cultural roots and origins, and the movements, presentation, performance, and teaching of those dance forms reflect the values, norms, and aspirations of that culture.

(Re)Imagining Dance Without Culture

When you think of Flamenco, do you only think of hand floreos, percussive footwork, and hand clapping? Or do you think of southern Spain, Andalucía, and the Spanish Roma?

Or when you think of ballet, do you think only of pointe shoes, arabesques, and pirouettes? Or do you consider the legacy of King Louis XIV, and the elite European courts that gave ballet its first stages?

What about belly dance? It is just shimmies and undulations? Or do you remember that the movements come from somewhere, that is, West Asia and North Africa?

Often when I see dancers doing what they often call “belly dance fusion” what I see is movement vocabulary removed from its cultural context.

Cultural Origins of Belly Dance… a Very Short Version

Belly dance emerged from the post-Ottoman Middle East, mostly in Egypt. It carries with it a legacy of existing despite a general cultural sense that women should not use or show their bodies to earn a living. Career dancers in the culture of origin often grapple with a society that shames them for their chosen profession.

Belly dance in its cultural context is performed to mostly Arabic music (even in Turkey), and a deep understanding of the sentiment of that music while conveying that emotion to the audience is essential for any accomplished performer. Belly dance in its culture of origin is performed with live musicians, and nightclub and hotel shows shift from emotional moment to emotional moment, with the dancer existing in that liminal space between audience and musician, embodying that space, and making it her own. But even when a dancer performs to a recording, they still are the medium that connects the viewer with the music.

So when a dancer does “hip drops” to Hip Hop for the sake of doing something new, that sense of embodied culture is often missing… from both the belly dance and the Hip Hop.

And, yes, experimentation is essential to art-making, but… cultural responsibility is even more so.

How Does Hybridity Happen?

So, what’s a dancer to do if they’re not from the culture of the dance form they are studying?

  • Listen to people from the culture of origin.
  • Keep practicing and building your movement vocabulary.
  • Find a reputable and knowledgable mentor.
  • Remember that your movement practice is just as important as studying history, theory, and culture.
  • Listen to music from the culture whose dance your studying, and learn how to dance to that music.
  • Remember that dance is never separate from culture and is, in fact, an embodiment of cultural values, history, and norms.

Hybridity Will Happen When It’s Ready

The more you integrate movements, techniques, and practices into what we like to say is your “muscle memory,” the more likely that hybridity will happen.

If you’re forcing fusion, it will always feel stilted, artificial, and surface… especially if you’re trying to sell it.

Movements will merge and meld in your body only with hard work, dedication, and surrendering to the process.

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Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.

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One Response

  1. I would love to know your thoughts on how to be respectful when we have learned a hybridised style (or a fusion style) from a reputable teacher. Do you think there is any way to do it without needing to take classes in a “traditional” style? Do you believe theoretical study of the relevant history and cultural contexts influencing their vocabulary is enough? What if the part we actually love is the particular unique stylisation that our teacher has brought to the dance form, and not necessarily anything that came before it? What if the innovation in “how” that person moves is more important in what we’re trying to achieve in our own dancing than “what” movement they’re doing? When that is the case, it is the more general study of *quality* that is our focus, and when that is the case, how important is context? If the quality is particular to that individual and is not a common occurrence throughout the dance styles that preceeded it, to what degree are we to focus on those past iterations in order to be respectful? (well, what do you think, anyway? 😉 I don’t expect you to have all of the answers…I’m just gathering ideas about this to try to figure it out for myself.)

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