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Stop Using the “E” Word

Stop Using the “E” Word

 

How trying to “elevate” belly dance sacrifices its core values.

I’m going to get a little ranty today. If you’re not in the mood for controversy, you may want to save this audio for another time…
 
 

I can’t stand it when I hear belly dancers talking about “elevating” the dance.

This dance is not low.

That’s not to say that it gets a lot of respect.

And being a belly dancer is usually considered a disreputable profession, particularly in its home countries.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s low.
 

You can acknowledge that lack of respect without sharing it.

So we absolutely should work to elevate people’s perceptions of the dance, but we don’t need to elevate the dance itself.

And that may sound like splitting hairs, but the difference matters.

Let me explain why…

 

(Clarification: I’m addressing this to belly dancers in the West.
It’s not my place to tell Middle Easterners what to do with their own dance.)

Listen Now:


 

(And here’s that YouTube clip I mentioned in the audio.)

p.s. I owe a hat tip to Alia Thabit, who introduced me to the idea of belly dance having values, rather than just aesthetics.

Or Read the Transcript

This was professionally transcribed, but it probably still has some errors. If you catch any, drop me a line at nadira@nadirajamal.com. I’d love to hear from you!

I’m going to get a little bit ranty today, so if you’re not in the mood for controversy, then maybe you want to save this audio for another time.

I can’t stand it when I hear belly dancers talking about “elevating” the dance. This dance is not low. Now, it’s not particularly respected, either in its home countries or here, and both the people who do it and the dance are often looked down on. But that doesn’t mean that it’s low. You can acknowledge people’s lack of respect without sharing it. So we absolutely do need to elevate people’s perceptions of the dance, but we don’t need to elevate the dance itself.

And that may sound like splitting hairs, but that choice of words really matters. My main problem with this is that when we say “elevate,” what we usually mean is “make it look more like Western dance.” You’ll here people talking about elevating it out of the restaurants and parties, and bringing it to the theatrical stage.

The thing is, is that when you present this dance in a big stage, under bright lights, with complicated choreography and virtuoso technique, big group numbers … that makes it look more like Western dance. And I get it. People respect things that they see on stages more than what they see in restaurants and nightclubs. But we can accommodate the audience’s prejudices, which we often need to do just to be able to participate. But we don’t have to agree with it at the same time.

Because the thing is, when we agree, we’re reinforcing the idea that Western dance is Art with a capital A, and “ethnic dance” is just a colorful folk tradition. And that is not okay.

Also, when we make those changes, we fundamentally change the heart and the nature of this dance. Remember that small venues are where this dance was made. For most of its history and also today, most belly dance happens in people’s homes, at weddings, in tavernas, on the streets, and going back a century or more, the Çengi in Turkey even danced in the cemeteries.

But also when you look at the history of Middle Easterners putting their dance on stages, they’re actually doing something different from what we’re talking about. There’s a great clip on YouTube of Badia Masabni’s “Casino Opera.” This was a film that was recorded, I want to say in the ’30s, but I could be wrong about that, that was an advertisement for the Casino Opera. And it was shown before movies. And what you see in that clip is a dancer emerging onto a tiny little raised stage, dancing her way down a steep flight of stairs, and then doing most of her show on the floor level. You also see the audience members seated at tables, and not in rows of chairs far away from the stage. So what you’re seeing the dancer do in that clip has a lot more in common with a restaurant show in a banquet room than with a theatrical show on a huge stage.

And that physical closeness to the audience matters. It has had a big effect on how the dance has evolved, both in form and in spirit. One of the core values of this dance, and maybe the most important one, is the personal connection between the dancer and the audience. A dancer here in Boston, Amina Delal, once told me that “a belly dancer is never just a body.” And so one of the most important things we have to do is to hear what we hear in the music, feel what we’re feeling, and open ourselves up to share that experience with the audience. When you do you dance on a huge stage under blinding lights, that just doesn’t happen. When we put our emphasis on fancy and impressive choreography, that takes the focus away from the connection and the feeling. And when we join the cult of technique, we put the cart ahead of the horse. Instead of using our technique as a platform to express our thoughts and feelings and artistic sensibilities, it becomes “see what I can do,” not “see what I’m feeling right now.”

And I am not knocking people who dance in theaters, or who enjoy group pieces, or any of that. A skilled performer can still breathe life into their dance in that situation and put on a good show. But it’s not the same experience. It’s not the same for you, and it’s not the same for your audience.

So if you want to do those things because that’s your artistic vision or what you enjoy, just go for it. You’ll be great. But you have to understand that what you’re doing is inherently fusion. And above all, don’t imply that making those changes makes belly dance somehow better and higher than the dance that we received from the dancers who came before us. Because they were not low, their dance was not low, and neither is ours. And if you do believe that making it more Western really does make it better, then maybe you should think long and hard about why you’re doing a dance that you have so little respect for.

And that’s my rant for today. If you have another perspective on this topic, I would love to hear from you. You can leave me a short voice message at BellyDanceGeek.com/voicemail. And maybe I’ll even play it on the air.

 

Disagree?

If you have another perspective on this topic, I would love to hear from you. Respectful disagreement is awesome! Leave a comment below.

Or better yet, leave me a short voice message.
Maybe I’ll even play it on the air!

 

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Image by Léon & Lévy (Delcampe.net) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
 

  1. Michele Cipressi Dean says:

    This was very interesting and valuable food for thought.

  2. Katarina Burda says:

    Thanks for your rant. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Brittany Leeful says:

    I often feel this same way. I think you worded this quite respectfully an eloquently so thank you for your “rant”.

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