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Cultural Appropriation & Belly Dance

Posted by Abbie on November 12, 2016 at 1:15 PM

 Cultural Appropriation & Belly Dance

Do I even want to go here? Any Western Belly Dancer with any sort of social media account won’t have avoided the recent cyberstorms created around the concept of cultural appropriation. The idea that it’s not OK for white Westerners to belly dance, as doing so is an insult to those who hail from the Middle East where it originated, and that their attempts, however successful, are an extension of colonial oppression.

Obviously the arguments are more subtle than this, and American intellectuals are particularly taxed by and eloquent on the subject. So much so that even with a degree in Literature and Philosophy I find most of their forum postings going completely over my head. That said, I ‘get’ the general gist, but there are a number of reasons why, for me, these arguments don’t persuade me to give up Belly Dance.


Allegiance

My primary allegiance is with women. As a woman I don’t need to take lessons in oppression, and my solidarity is with women across culture, country, class, and history, and is far more powerful than my involuntary connection to male imperialists through being white and British. Walking through the Harem quarters at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, I tried to imagine what it might have been like for the women there, born or sold into slavery and prostitution; how their lives and condition depended on the whims of those with power over them (including, of course other women). Women have an extraordinary capacity to make the best of their often appalling situations – did dancing play a part in giving them some release or escape? I do know I came away thinking that had I been in that situation I’d rather take my chances in there than on the streets. Perhaps by continuing to study and learn about their dance, we far from romanticise their lives but rather ensure they’re not forgotten.


Origins

It’s surely clear that the origins of Belly Dance are obscure and multiple, yet the cultural appropriation arguments seem to want to pin them down to one time and place. Dancers have always been a transportable commodity in the global economy, therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that Belly Dance has influenced dance across the world, and has been influenced by other dance forms itself over time. We don’t have a problem associating the links between Irish Dance, Flamenco and Tap, tracking their progress over time and continents, so why are we so precious and assume that Belly Dance belongs to only one area and ethnic group?

As I mentioned, I’m British. In other words, most likely a blend of ethnicities. And if the upper-class contingent amongst my ancestors had any (ahem) involvement with our nation’s colonial past, I’m more than likely to be, say part-Indian or part-Middle Eastern. Would that make me an authentic Bellydancer?? Where’s that DNA testing kit….  


Language

… and the ‘G’ word. Again, this is particularly fraught in the US where the word ‘Gypsy’ has particular baggage, and seems only to be offensive, and UK dancers have been drawn into all the furore, despite I believe having a very different relationship with the word. Many travelling communities and specific ethnic or social groups around the world are seemingly at ease with calling themselves Gypsies (and the most romanticised promotional video I’ve ever seen was produced by Travellers themselves - ambling with horses in soft focus through a spring meadow – an outrageous hippy dream!).   In the English language here in the UK, as well as referring to particular groups of people, the word has also become shorthand for what the settled community feels to be the positive aspects of an older, alternative (and authentic?) way of living; a more immediate relationship with nature; a more honest connection with our physical being, including our sexuality; a stronger sense of community. These may be far removed from Gypsies’ lives, but sometimes we have to acknowledge the way language changes and works within our culture. (For example, Sunday's Child "bonny, blithe, good and gay" who used to be lighthearted now finds him/herself in a same-sex marriage!). Having said that, words can of course be successfully reclaimed.


My culture

It’s important to me to learn and understand as much as I can about the history and culture of Belly Dance, and to share this with students. Not least because I’m forced to admit that I also love both the diet of cheesy imagery of Belly Dancers that I grew up with in the 1960s & ‘70s, and the gloriously beautiful, sumptuous and luscious Orientalist paintings left to us by C18th & C19th century artists. There, I’ve said it. I can’t pretend that these aren’t part of my culture, so the best I can do is acknowledge how, where and why they might not be an appropriate way to celebrate someone else’s.


Respect & Love

For me, some of the cultural appropriation arguments also leave a nasty taste in the mouth, somehow giving the impression that ‘genuine’ belly dancers are innocent rustics who must be protected against the evils of Imperialism. You’re talking among others about the highly educated poets, dancers and musicians of the Ottoman court, and the savvy C20th businesswomen who created sophisticated nightclubs in the multicultural, global city hubs of the Middle East. All women who contribute to the dance and its progress through history deserve respect and acknowledgement, and I’m encouraged to continue to Belly Dance by Middle Eastern dancers themselves who love and celebrate the fact that ‘their’ dance is now enjoyed across the world – thank you Aida Nour, Nagwa Fouad, Randa Kamel, Nawarra and all the amazing Middle Eastern dancers who have visited the UK, and far from telling me I’m white and rubbish, have generously shared your love and knowledge and encouraged me to dance!

    Alanya

 

Abbie Mason (Alanya) November 2016

 

 

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