Are We Confusioned Yet?
Part One: Why I Can’t Stand Belly Dance To Western Music
Can you imagine someone dancing samba to an Adele song? Or could you imagine someone dancing flamenco to Ed Sheeran? Without putting words into your mouth, I would say probably not.* It would look and feel wrong because there would be no connection between the music and the movements. So why do belly dancers so often perform to music that has little or no relation to the cultures of origin?
For clarity, what I mean by the cultures of origin is the Middle East, North Africa, Greece (Hellas) and Turkey, which can be conveniently abbreviated to MENAHT. I will use the term Western music as a convenient shorthand for non-MENAHT music because I am based in the West (the UK specifically) and this is the most likely non-MENAHT music that will be used (though I have seen belly dance performed to Senegalese music for example).
Why does it seem that belly dance is the only dance genre where the music and cultural background is routinely ignored or actively disdained? I am not talking about somebody including Happy Birthday or a Christmas carol as part of a larger set for a specific event or party, or someone including Despacito or another current song. What I am talking about is a conscious decision to choreograph or create a whole piece around a non-MENAHT song and present that as being “belly dance”.
Why is it problematic to perform belly dance to Western music? What we refer to as belly dance in the English-speaking world is called raqs sharqi in Arabic and oryantal dans in Turkish.** Both terms when translated have the meaning “dance of the east”. Belly dance therefore has a specific geographical location and origin. Once we start moving away from this cultural context, the essence of the dance is lost.
Firstly, whilst belly dance is not a strictly codified dance form like ballet, to some extent there are still “rules”. The movements are dictated by the rhythm and instrumentation of the music. The music tells you what to do at any given point in time. It is not as prescriptive as “you must do this move to this part of the music”, but there will be a choice of movements that would be most appropriate for what is happening in the music. Sometimes the rhythm tells you to travel, sometimes it tells you to remain in one spot. With the best dancers, you should be able to cover your ears and still see the music in their bodies, or cover your eyes and be able to imagine clearly what she would be doing to the music at that moment in time. This is the joy and spirit of raqs sharqi, the synergy between the dancer and music. With a piece of non-MENAHT music, all these auditory cues are missing. The resulting dance is something unintelligible that is less than the sum of its parts.
Secondly, the context of the performance in the cultures of origin is important. A belly dancer in the Middle East is an entertainer. They perform at weddings, parties, nightclubs and cabarets. She does not necessarily need to be an artist but she does need to be entertaining in one way or another. The barrier between audience member and performer is either permeable or non-existent. Even the most famous belly dancer in Egypt, Dina, takes time to share jokes with the audience and comes out into the audience to dance with a groom-to-be and his friends from Lebanon. Audience members are vocal throughout her show, shouting out “enti fanana kabira” (you are a great artist). In an Egyptian downtown cabaret, you will be invited up to join the dancer on the stage (the dancer is not technically allowed to leave the stage though this rule is sometimes ignored).
This is a very different context to how dance performance is presented in the West where it will usually be watched in a formal theatre context and audience interaction will usually be limited to a round of applause at the end of each act or performance. Certainly spontaneous comments called out in the middle of the performance would be frowned upon in most places. Of course, social dance also exists in the West in night clubs, salsa nights and so forth, but I would suggest that social dancing and dance as performance art are somewhat separate in the West. In belly dance, performance art and social dance are blurred. The usage of Western music for belly dance is therefore problematic in that it tends to accompany more theatrical or interpretative dance performances which do not have this interactive element; a barrier is therefore established once again between audience and performer.
Removing the music and the performance context results in something unrecognisable to an observer from one of the cultures of origin. I attended a hafla (to those outside the belly dance community this is a term used to refer to an informal showcase of belly dance performances though it is somewhat bizarre that an Arabic word is used to describe something which often bears little or no relation to Arabic culture) a few years ago somewhere outside of London. The performances were each announced with a little introduction as to the style and origin of the dance, which usually mentioned the country the dance was from. There was then a fusion piece which did not mention any cultural information. During the performance, a North African gentleman next to me turned to politely ask me, “excuse me, but which country is this dance from?” I had to give the honest answer, “it’s made up, it’s not from anywhere”. Belly dance produced in a vacuum from its cultural context results in something empty.
This problem stems from two sources - arrogance and ignorance. Arrogance in that belly dance somehow has to be made understandable or palatable for the Western audience, that it has to be improved or changed somehow. This cultural arrogance manifests itself in many ways, not just in the choice of music. There has been much recent debate over attitudes towards dancers in cabarets in Egypt and the view that belly dance needs to be sanitised and elevated as it has become debased and vulgar in its countries of origin. This sadly misses the point that whether someone is dancing in a £50 or a £500 costume in downtown bar or a five star hotel, somebody somewhere is going to have a problem with that woman showing her body and dancing in public. As discussed earlier, belly dancing is primarily entertainment, not high art (though it can be both), that revels in its display of (usually) female sensuality. I have no interest in a sterile belly dance that has been purged of its sexiness as frankly I do not see the point.
The other form of arrogance is on a personal level rather than a cultural one and derives from a sense of entitlement that someone’s desire to express their art trumps all other considerations, including cultural knowledge. Belly dance is not just your personal expression, it is first and foremost a cultural expression. I obliquely referenced Randa Jarrar’s (in)famous article “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers” *** in the title. Her argument differs from mine, but much of what she has to say has relevance: “ This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze”. We can add to this list indulging your creative whimsies or flights of fancy. If you immerse yourself in the culture, then maybe the two can intertwine. Ignoring the cultural heritage is both confusing and disrespectful for people of the culture and misinforms Western audiences as to what belly dance actually is.
When I refer to ignorance, this can be the result of two causes: poor teaching and lack of exposure to the cultures of origin. If someone’s dance teacher has been routinely using Western music as part of their classes then it will become something normal and acceptable. The student is not going to know any better and can hardly be blamed. If as a teacher you feel that you need to make your classes more “accessible” by using Western music then you are only doing your students a disservice and holding them back from developing a love and appreciation of Middle Eastern music and culture. There is no shortage of accessible Egyptian and Lebanese pop music with western influences and flavour that your students might enjoy. Sometime I have even heard of dance students not liking Middle Eastern music. At this point, my eyes nearly roll out of their sockets. Surely liking the music is a prerequisite for learning the dance.
Another argument I see in favour of student dancers training and performing to Western music is that there is no language barrier and the music has more emotional resonance for them, as it comes from their culture. Translations of classic Egyptian songs are readily available online. There are key phrases and vocabulary that are repeated time and time again and be learnt and recognised. The emotions expressed in the classic repertoire are not Egyptian or Arab emotions, they are human emotions: love, unrequited love, longing, loneliness, nostalgia, regret, joy, sorrow. Surely any human being can tap into these feelings and bring them to their performance? Take things a step further, meet and interact with people of the culture; be their friend, be their lover even.
Finally, some dancers feel limited or perhaps even bored by Middle Eastern music. Randa Kamel’s tag line for her courses is “there are no limits to dance”. The dance has evolved, and continues to evolve. The only limits are your own technique and physical ability. If you are bored, try a different dance style, but don’t try and fix something that isn’t broken.
You can dance how you like to what you like, but please do not call it belly dance if it’s not.
* As not everything is black and white, here is an Adele track that you could maybe dance samba to… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq7zdMSAcHo
** I am loathe to use the term belly dance but it is a commercial necessity as a dancer in the West to use the term so that clients can find out about your services. I would prefer to discard it in the long term and replace it with the term raqs sharqi as that correctly reflects the cultural origins of the dance. The term belly dance says nothing about the music, the culture or even the movements of the dance.