I’ve been pretty quiet over here in blog land for various reasons. I’ve been teaching Dance Appreciation college course (sometimes 100+ students), my Mills College dance history course, in addition to bumping up my own teaching business and acting as a Peer Leader in the Suhaila Salimpour Institute of Online Education.
Basically, I’ve been keeping my eyes on my own paper… and all the final papers that my college students have written.
Spending most of my mental time in an academic and educational space has given me much to think about. So much so that I am creating a new survey course for one of my colleges focused entirely on dance forms outside the ballet/modern canon. Dance Appreciation covers those topics and my colleague teaches a history of jazz/African American dance, so I wanted to fill in the gap.
The hardest part about proposing and outlining a course that covers everything that is not ballet/modern/contemporary/jazz was naming it. Every term that we have for non-European/American concert dance is lacking. “Ethnic Dance” is antiquated and othering. “Folk Dance” excludes concert, religious, and classical forms. “Traditional Dance” begs the question: what is traditional? “Vernacular Dance” doesn’t include the classical forms such as Bharatnatyam that are now primarily taught in academies rather than handed down through families and communities.
At the same time, I’ve been observing how many people in the belly dance scene are missing a key distinction when talking about learning from dancers from the region, naming steps, tracing lineage, learning root forms, and performing professionally. Specialists in vernacular dance accuse practitioners of concert/classical forms of appropriation, misinterpretation, and fantasy. And while sometimes that might be true, I feel that the disconnect lies in a misunderstanding of the various contexts dances are performed.
Basically… The belly dance that professional practitioners put on stage is not a folk or vernacular dance. It comes from folk and vernacular forms, but it is, in its own way, a concert dance form.
For this post, I am pulling quite a bit from the work and research done over the past several decades by Dr. Anthony Shay. His work focuses on the transformation of vernacular and folk dance on the concert stage, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude. I’m also drawing from the research of friend and colleague Dr. Christopher Smith, whose research focuses on the history and reconstruction of hybrid vernacular music in the United States. And I would be remiss to not credit Joann Keali’inohomoku and her seminal paper examining ballet as an ethnic dance form.
A note on pronouns: In this blog post I sometimes use “she” to describe professional belly dancers, not because I believe that only women can be professional dancers, but because the professional dancers I am referencing—the likes of Fifi Abdo, Mona El Said, Nadia Gamal—are all women.
The Words We Use Matter
Before I get started, let’s clarify some terminology:
Folk dance is, in simple terms, the dance of the “people.” These dances are loosely set (changing and adapting over time) and often performed in groups, usually to mark some kind of holiday or celebration, but are not religious, devotional, or learned/taught in any kind of academy. The maypole dance, the Morris Dance, and Lebanese debke are all kinds of folk dance. However, this term has a kind of double meaning. In the mid-20th century, the term shifted as professional folk dance companies emerged in the mid-20th century, such as the Reda Troupe from Egypt or Banyanihan from the Philippines, and Amalia Hernandez’s Ballet Folklorico from Mexico. These companies don’t perform dances in their original contexts; they are adapted for the stage and performed away from their respective celebrative situations. Dr. Shay says that folk dance companies such as these often stage the “peasantry,” or non-urbanized peoples of their respective countries or ethnicities. In that way, these folk dance companies have created their own forms, something Shay calls “invented tradition.”
Vernacular dance is what people do in their homes, at parties and gatherings, and in clubs. It’s what the “regular people” do, and there is no distinction between urban or rural as there is with the term “folk.” Dr. Smith says that vernacular skills—cooking, sewing, dance, or music to name a few—are learned through imitation, often with the guidance of peers or elders. Vernacular dances, while performative, are not performances per se. A dancer is witnessed by the people around them, and those people are likely to be friends, family, or peers. Of course, one can stage a vernacular dance (we could look at Vogueing as a kind of staged vernacular dance).
Ethnic dance. Ethnic dance is a term that made sense (to some extent) in the mid-to-late 20th century to give a category to non-Euro-American concert dance forms. Basically, everything that is not derived from ballet, modern/post-modern/contemporary dance, performance art, or Broadway/competition jazz dance (i.e. “white” concert dance1) has been thrown into the “ethnic” dance category. An ethnic dance reflects a particular ethnicity’s aesthetic and cultural values, and can include folk, vernacular, concert, religious, and devotional dances. Look at the programming of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and you’ll see everything from Regency-era partner dances, Appalachian clogging, flamenco, Cambodian dances, belly dance/raqs sharqi, Tahitian Ori, Hawaiian Hula, Philippine Tinikling, and so much more. The trouble is that today “ethnic” means “anything that’s not ballet/modern,” with an implication in wider circles that it’s “anything that isn’t white.” Indeed, the term “ethnic dance” runs into similar problems as the term “belly dance:” it’s incomplete, colonial, antiquated, and inaccurate. And, as Keali’inohomoku argues, “ethnic” can be applied to ballet too.
Concert (and staged) dance is presented as a professional performance, with ballet and modern/contemporary dance being the most obvious forms. Concert dances are typically performed on a proscenium stage in a theater, with the audience arranged in neat rows facing the stage. Audiences typically pay to see a concert dance production; these kinds of performances might be a full or evening-length production (Suhaila Salimpour’s Enta Omri) or a collection of shorter pieces, such as at a dance festival. The folk dance companies of the mid-20th century staged and transformed “traditional” dances for the concert stage, and I would argue that these companies straddle the line between concert dance and vernacular/folk dance.
Belly dance. For the sake of this blog post, I’m using this term to refer to the professional, staged evening-length performances by the likes of Nagwa Fouad, Mona El Said, Fifi Abdo, Nadia Gamal, Sohair Zaki, Dina, Randa Kamel, Suhaila Salimpour, and others. These performances typically take place in a nightclub or hotel, and have an ensemble of live musicians. We can trace this modality of performance back to the seminal Casino Opera, founded by Badia Masabni in the 1920s. You might call this kind of dance raqs sharqi or even “oriental dance,” but any long term professional practitioner of the form will tell you that no name truly encompasses or adequately describes it.
Staging the Folk and Vernacular
Now, when we put a folk or vernacular dance form on the concert stage, we must make some substantial changes. Typically, a folk dance is done by a community for a community; it is by an in-group for the in-group. When a director puts it on the concert stage, it becomes a kind of ambassador for an entire culture or ethnicity; it is now by an in-group for an out-group.
- Instead of dancing with and for friends, family, and the wider community or village, the dancers now perform for an audience. The very nature of putting a performance onstage separates the dancers from the audience, and now there is a definite and defined front, that is “downstage.” The presence of an audience, in the case of a theater, creates an in-group and out-group by default, even if a staged folk/vernacular form were not being presented. The dancers are the in-group; the audience is the out-group… or maybe it’s the other way around.
- Most folk dances presented on a concert stage, or even at a cultural festival, are choreographed. And that choreography must be rehearsed. Often, the company aims to perform the dance the same way every time in a very closed and set sequence of movements, staging, and blocking. Generally, that rehearsing takes place in a dance studio, but it could also happen at a cultural center managed/run/maintained/funded by that particular cultural in-group.
- Generally, members of dance companies that present staged folk and vernacular dances train in that form, that is they take classes from a master teacher/choreographer. They spend a significant amount of time in a dance studio (or studio-like setting) to learn technique, steps, and choreographies. Staged vernacular/folk dances usually include some virtuosic elements as well, such as impressive leaps, fast turns, or technical footwork.
- The piece needs to be costumed. The director will make choices about what style of costume, colors, make-up, and hair styling. It’s unlikely that the costumes designed for the show are cookie-cutter copies of what the actual peasants or folk of any particular region actually wear, especially these days. They are glitzed up with vibrant colors, rhinestones or sequins, elaborate decoration and embroideries, and must be adapted for the moving, dancing body.
- The director must also choose which songs to set the dances to, or whether or not to commission original pieces or re-recordings of existing songs. If the company includes live musicians, then the musicians must perform the piece the same time every time. The style of music, the musicians hired, the songs, are all aesthetic, political, and creative choices that shift the dance from “people’s dance” to “professional dance.”
Professional Belly Dance Blurs the Line
Professional belly dance, what we often call raqs sharqi, blurs the lines between audience and performer, between vernacular and concert. The classic belly dance performance—a soloist with a live band—integrates distinct elements that are not part of the Euro-American concert dance presentation.
- The dancer interacts with the audience and the musicians, more like a jazz singer might in a supper club. An audience member might also come up to the stage and shower the dancer with tips or even dance with the performer for a moment.
- Classic belly dance in its context—from the Casino Opera to the 5-star hotels of Cairo and Dubai—is not performed on a proscenium stage. Many belly dance shows were and still are performed on nightclub stages mostly at the same height/level as the audience. The architectural separation of performer from audience is far less severe than it is in a proscenium theater. Of course, belly dance can and is performed on proscenium stages all the time—a relatively new phenomenon, starting in earnest in the early 2000s—but its classic presentation is in a nightclub with a full band.
- The dancer often improvises their movements, although they know the music so well that they might perform a kind of loose, malleable, adaptable choreography. They usually do not rehearse or set choreographies for their solo performances.
- Not all of the “great” belly dancers were formally trained, but rather honed their skills through performance, rather than learning movements and steps in a studio before becoming professional performers. This element, I would argue, has shifted quite a bit since the 1970s, particularly as more foreign-born dancers take nightclub and supper club jobs in Cairo, Dubai, and other cities throughout the MENAHT (Middle East/North Africa/Hellenic/Turkey) region.2
- The musicians will perform elements of improvisation, both through solo taqasim as well as heterophonic embellishment. They might also change up the phrasing of a song, or they might decide to play a different song entirely than what they and the dancer agreed on earlier in the evening.
So, in these elements, belly dance/raqs sharqi/oriental dance exists in a space somewhere between Euro-American concert dance and vernacular dance.
“Folkloric” as Code for “Peasant”
At this point I would like to clarify that I am making a distinction between “folklore” as a field of academic study and “folkloric dance.” Folklore is a much broader term that covers the study of a wide range of cultural elements of the “common people.” Common people can be urban and urbanized, but in the case of staging “traditional” dances, “folk” and “folkloric” is often a code word for “peasant.”3
Indeed, a belly dance show might have a folkloric “tableau,” that is, a song or a few songs that have “peasant” elements. In this case, the “peasant” element is often of the balad (Arabic for “countryside”) or the fellahin (agricultural laborers, well, you know, the peasants of Egypt).
The baladi tableau usually occurs in the second half of the show, in which the dancer changes from her two-piece bedlah and into a baladi dress, galabiyya, or dress made of the quintessential baladi fabric, assyut or tulle bi-telli. She might have “back-up” dancers, usually young men in galabiyyas who dance with their own tahtibs in a simple, choreographed phrase. She’ll perform to a typical baladi song or perhaps a Sa’idi piece with a tabl baladi and a mizmar player—two instruments that mark the fellahin—or even a newer sha’abi song (“new” here is a relative term).
These presentations, I would argue, are another example of the staged folkloric “invented tradition” that Dr. Shay writes about in his many monographs. The dancers are not intending to portray fellahi or baladi dance as one would see it in the rural villages of Egypt. They are playing a character, usually bint al-balad, the “country girl” who is at once innocent, cheeky, flirty, naughty, and hyper-feminine as she pokes fun at the masculine farmer with her assaya or tahtib. The bint al-baladi is an archetype, and sometimes, a stereotype. She is not someone you’d encounter in the outskirts of Luxor. She is, in her own way, a fantasy, a romanticization of peasant life.
But the first half of the show, with its grand entrance song—composed in the tradition of Hani Mehanna’s “Misha’al” or Muhammed Sultan’s “Set al Hosen”—is distinctly urban. It is glitz and glamour. It is sophistication and class. With her impeccable styling, expensive costume, and perfect mani-pedi, the dancer is undeniably a professional. In fact, she is a diva, a superstar. When she enters, chiffon veil floating behind her, she says, “Yes, I am the belly dancer, and I know you will judge me as such, but I am elegant and untouchable. I am not a country girl.”
Belly Dance as a Kind of Concert Dance
If return to our definition of vernacular dance, that it is learned by watching, then it’s safe to say that most of us aren’t learning belly dance by attending Arabic or MENAHT parties, gatherings, or weddings in which we are imitating the people there, soaking up their vibe and sentiment, and maybe receiving a few hints here and there from an aunt or distant cousin of the host. If we’re not of MENAHT heritage, we do not grow up dancing to Arabic/MENAHT music on the stereo in the living room or to the hired band at the latest family wedding. Nowhere in the MENAHT region will you see someone in a vernacular setting at a party, gathering, celebration, or even just grooving in their own home in a two-piece bedlah. The professional dancer wears the bedlah. Indeed, it marks her.
Belly dance/raqs sharqi as we learn, perform, and now teach it here in the United States, throughout Europe, and around the world, is not a folk or vernacular dance. It’s more akin to a classical dance, like bharatnatyam, some lineages of flamenco, and, of course, ballet.
We take classes in a studio. We pay an instructor (hopefully from the culture or origin or who has been closely mentored and guided by someone who is). We learn movements and steps, scaffolded in a progressive order. We learn combinations that have been crafted to meet our skill levels. We hold student shows, “haflas,” and festivals in dance studios, in theaters, and hotel ballrooms, where we perform for primarily non-MENAHT audiences.
Whether we like it or not, this dance form (whatever you choose to call it) has fallen off the folk tree, past the vernacular vine, and rolled quite far away into a field of its own.
That does not, of course, excuse us from seeking the tree, examining its roots, and understanding the many branches.
But to insist that the belly dance that we put on stage is a folk or even a vernacular dance ignores the transformation begun nearly 100 years ago by Badia Masabni. It is a staged dance, a kind of concert dance, practiced and presented for paying audiences.
In that regard, as students of this dance form, we must recognize the work, skill, and training that goes into performing on the concert stage, whether that’s at a festival, a restaurant or nightclub, or an actual proscenium stage.
- I put “white” in quotes here because “white” is an artificial construct, particularly when examining folk and vernacular dances. There is no “white” dance. There are, however, dances from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, the Basque region, Italy and so on. And, of course, modern European borders don’t even truly delineate the various traditions throughout the continent; the cultural markers of Sicily, for example, are quite different from those in Milan even though they are both nominally “Italian.”
- Many of foreign-born dancers, particularly Russian/Ukrainian dancers who perform in Cairo and other cities in the Arab world have studied ballet since they were children, and seek out professional training in “oriental dance” from former members of folkloric dance companies such as the Reda Troupe and Firqat Khawmiyya.
- Of course, this is not universally true, particularly with regard to, say, the character dances Mahmoud Reda created for his company. For example, an urban young lady from the city of Alexandria dances the milaya leff and a rowdy sailor boy from the Port Said area of the Suez Canal dances the bambutiyya.