Diving into the Bellydance Broil….
March 10, 2014
Every once in a while some writing comes along that makes waves in bellydance community. The most recent instance has spurred much heated discussion….
An article was published recently on Salon.com for their “Feminists of Color” series by Arab-American author Randa Jarrar. In it she writes all about why she “can’t stand white” bellydancers. The essay’s purposefully inflammatory title and attitude has guaranteed it as click-bait and generated a good deal of furor in the international bellydance community.
I debated whether or not to engage in the debate or post my own piece here. So much has been written in the last few days and I don’t think that Jarrar’s poorly thought out rant deserves so much attention. Even though I feel that Jarrar’s article does not discuss real issues of cultural appropriation in bellydance (rather it rants, in a way, at the very existence of professional bellydance) It has, at least, sparked some interesting and intelligent discussion among dancers on the subject. The comments and replies, even from non-dancers have been overwhelmingly opposed to Jarrar’s views… but because she is a published writer of of Arab descent, many readers who are not already knowledgable about bellydance may take her misinformed history of the dance as true.
Bellydance as social dance vs. performance
Jarrar talks about her experiences growing up and dancing socially among women and how the dynamic shifted when she saw dancers (she does not specify whether socially or professional performers) at parties where men were present. This, in my opinion, is the first big problem with the stance of her essay. She does not differentiate in any way between the practice of social dance done in private and the role of the professional performer. Dance performed by professionals as entertainment has probably always existed in some form or another in the Arab world. We do know some history of the Ghawazee and the Awalim, but the stage form known as raqs sharqi ,performed by the sparkly, female, solo performer on a nightclub stage, which incorporates aspects of Arab social dance along with Persian, Latin , Western ballroom dances and ballet, was created at around the turn of the century. Essentially, it is a fairly new form of of dance performance art. (Please read: Badia Masabny:Star Maker of Cairo) At times I have heard people, both Arabs and non-Arabs say things to me like “Bellydance is a made up dance invented by Hollywood” or “In the Middle East bellydance is only done by women for women” Neither of these statements comes close to the whole story.
Jarrar calls out the name “Bellydance” as a Western one. This is true…It comes from the French danse du ventre, this was the name given to describe the dances the French observed in Algeria and did make its way to the US at the time of the world’s fair. There, it was considered exotic and salacious and used to lure Victorian audiences to watch the dancers. At that time, the stage performance form that we know today was just being born and there was no name for the dance in Arabic other than simply “raqs” or dance. The dance came to be know in Arabic as “Raqs Sharqi” or in Turkish as “Oryantal Tansi” both meaning “Eastern Dance”. The dance is often simply referred to as “Sharqi”, “Oryantal” or “Oriental” Because of its history and the general strangeness of the term, nearly every dancer has at some point taken issue with the name “Bellydance”, but that is the name the dance is known by in the West and which it is just as widely known by in the Middle East.
For good stuff on this topic see Morocco’s article “The Ethics of Ethnic”
The two piece costume that has become iconic of bellydance also emerged during this time. Though it certainly took some influence from the West, Hollywood did not create it. Professional dancers could often already be seen in a precursor to this costume and the Hollywood showgirl influence was added and assimilated again to make something new, but which was unique and suited to the art. For photos and more details on costuming see the article “At the Crossroads”
Now, why is all of this important to Jarrar’s argument? Because, her main stance is that “white” women putting on a bellydance costume and stage makeup are wearing what she calls “Arab face” Her reasoning is faulty because no dancer who puts on a bellydance costume is attempting to dress up as an “Arab woman” Heck, even someone who puts on a bellydance costume for Halloween is not trying to dress as an Arab woman. They are dressing as a bellydancer, in the costume specifically designed for that dance. Most forms of professional entertainment dance have their own specific costume. Samba has a costume, classical Indian dances each have their own costume, Ballet has costumes, etc. Each are recognizable to their form and dressing in any of these means you are dressing as dancer of that style, not attempting to dress up as person from that culture.
As for the makeup, I have to call that out as silly. Heavy make of part of the job for any performer. There may be slight variations in styling but I assure you that on stage, pro dancers of all styles wear a good deal of eyeliner. 😉
The next point Jarrar makes regarding her “Arab face” stance is that of dancers taking Arabic stage names. While I see that there is something to her point here but the custom of performers taking a stage name has existed for centuries all around the world either to fit the style of the dance, or simply to sound more glamourous. In fact most Arabic raqs sharqi dancers have taken a stage name of some sort. Taheya Carioca who is one of the most highly regarded Arab dancers and who Jarrar mentions as a favorite in her article, took her name from the popular Brazilian dance of the era. Samia Gamal and Fifi Abdo are also stage names as are many others.
Taking a stage name is something that many dancers feel conflicted about for a variety of reasons, but unless you already have a suitably glamourous name, the pressure to do so is great. Especially if you are trying to be hired, by both Middle Easterners and Westerners alike.
*Still, stage name or no, I don’t of any dancers who are trying to pass themselves off as being from Middle Eastern culture when they are not. In previous generations of American dancers this did happen, usually because the Arab club owner would make up backgrounds for the dancers to please the questions of Arab customers. As a dancer, you will find that even if clearly make no claims to Middle Eastern ancestry, many ME audience members will continually question, digging for some shred of cultural connection to “explain” your dance skill.
A few other thoughts…
*If you are unfamiliar with the bellydance, its culture an history, you may be unaware of the status of dancers and how they are regarded in the Middle East. It is a vast understatement to say that it is not considered respectable work, and yet bellydance is beloved entertainment and in demand by audiences. This is why it has historically been performed by people already on the outskirts of society. Autumn Ward discuss this in her excellent rebuttal HERE Because these class divides are so strong, one wonders if Jarrar has ever had a real conversation with an Arab professional dancer. Her assertion that Arab dancers who teach the dance to foreigners are “exploiting themeselves” was one I found especially troubling coming from a supposedly feminist essay. It certainly reveals her cultural bias against dance as a profession.
**Jarrar’s comment that the dancers she saw was “extremely thin”, of course was unnecessary body snark, but there’s more to it than that. Its obvious to us as dancers that the top Arabic or Turkish performers of the art work very hard at what they do. Whether they trained in a formal class situation or not, they have trained, practiced and honed their skills at dance and performance. Yet, is not uncommon to hear comments directed at women, from Arabs, along the lines of “You have the right figure/look for bellydance. You should be a bellydancer!” I remember hearing that Nagua Fouad’s story was that when she was trying to get into showbiz, she tried to be a singer first. She was not good at singing, but she was told that she had a “good body” and that she should be a dancer. Jarrar’s article reinforces the idea that what makes a good bellydancer is having the “right” figure and skin tone and has little to do with the actual work it takes to perform dance at a professional level.
***Much has been said about the issues of race brought up in this article…”White”, in this case, is tricky term to define and non-Arab non-white dancers apparently are not even on Jarrar’s radar…. I will leave it to Luna of Cairo’s blog on the subject HERE
****Lastly,I want to give my personal opinion of Randa Jarrar’s writing… Many people both in and outside of the dance community are discussing this article. Some defend Jarrar in some way, saying that while they do not agree with her, she makes some good points. They then bring up the issue of dancers who do not learn about the culture of the dance, do whatever they want with it, etc., That would be all well and good in her defense if she actually made those points, but she does not. It does not matter to Jarrar if the ‘white’ dancers do the dance well or not. She is ranting against them doing the dance at all, and in many ways against bellydance performance in general. Her rant is full of spite and is based poor understanding of dance history and the lives of professional dancers. Discussions about cultural appropriation to have, but I wish people would stop giving her credit for points she did not actually make.
Here are some links to other responses inspired by this article.
In Praise of Polyglot Culture – And Multicultural Bellydancing
You can read Randa Jarrar’s original essay, that sparked all this kerfuffle HERE
Mariyah is an NYC based professional dancer, committed to authenticity, innovation and exhilaration in the performance and teaching of bellydance.
To learn more, or to inquire about booking for performances, workshops or classes,visit www.bellydancernewyork.com,join the mailing list, or find her on Facebook For group performance information visit Infinity Bellydance