Love Your Body
|Posted by Abbie on August 19, 2020 at 11:05 AM||comments ()|
I’ve been saddened by the number of women who aren’t happy in their bodies; have never felt they were perfect or even good enough, and have been their own worst critics when it comes to shape, size, appearance, etc. I hope these thoughts may inspire a different approach and a more positive response to this curious amalgamation of skin, bone, muscle and tissue that we call our bodies!
At 14 years old I was diagnosed with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis – a lateral curvature of the spine with no known cause. Ten years earlier, and there’d have been no option; it would have got progressively worse, resulting in at best a disabling condition, or at worst death from a punctured lung from a twisted rib. However by the time of my diagnosis surgeons had developed corrective surgery which, after many tense months of checking growth and suitability, I was offered. 2 months flat on my back in hospital; 2 more months in a plaster cast from chin to hip, and a further 8 months in a spinal brace. Not surprisingly I didn’t celebrate my 16th birthday in any traditional way…
Of course during those teenage years I had all the usual angst about my body. I was flat-chested, had sparrows’ legs, acne, bony knees and elbows, and couldn’t have looked less like Farah Fawcett (the iconic look of the day) if I’d tried. But compared with the prospect of what might have been had it not been for our amazing surgeons and health service, these anxieties seemed suddenly quite absurd.
Somehow, at least in Western culture, women have learned to feel inadequate when it comes to their bodies. But think about the ‘ideal’ female silhouette over the past 100-odd years:
The Gibson Girl (with her large bust and huge bustle)
The Flapper (no bust, waist or hips)
The New Look (tiny cinched waist)
Marilyn Monroe (voluptuous)
Twiggy (skinny, boyish)
Farah Fawcett (slender, curvy, healthy)
Madonna (curvy, pointy, muscly – at least she called the shots!)
Heroin Chic (skeletal, sickly)
Kim Kardashian (large bust and huge bum - ooh look, we’re back to the Gibson Girl!)
What are the chances of having the ‘right’ shape at the right time of your life?! (Catwalk models whilst being fêted as an ideal get a lot of criticism for being unrepresentative, but haute couture has as little to do with the clothes we wear as haute cuisine has to do with the food we share. This topic would need its own blog….). Our ideas of perfection change over time, and all are accentuated versions of real women, who are all beautiful, precisely in their variety.
It’s time to acknowledge our condition of privilege when we complain about our [insert issue of choice here] wrinkles/cellulite/fat bum/flat chest, etc.
Can your eyes see the stars?
Can your arms hug a friend?
Can you dance in the rain?
Can you give birth?
Can you run up a hill?
Can your skin keep your insides from falling out?
Can you write a love letter?
Can you hear the birds?
Can you paint a butterfly (I know, only if it stays still for long enough!)?
Can you feel the sun on your skin?
Can you cuddle a baby?
Can you care for another person or creature?
If you can do any of these things (and what other things can your body do that you could include in your own list?) you should treasure, respect, cherish and celebrate your body.
I was incredibly fortunate to be able to return to dancing after my surgery, and as a folk and social tradition Belly Dance is wonderfully accommodating to women of all shapes, sizes and appearance, so discovering it in my 40s renewed my gratitude to my surgeon and the wonderful hospital staff all those years ago who made me realise what an amazing thing it is to have a body, and to have the privilege to be able to dance. Choose to look after as best you can and to love yours!
A Matter of Taste
|Posted by Abbie on March 28, 2020 at 2:05 PM||comments ()|
Once again I find myself reflecting on discussions posted online in the Bellydance community which cause much disagreement and some hostility. The internet enables freedom of expression, which also means people are free to comment on how others express themselves, so any Bellydancer who puts herself out there is subject to everyone else's opinion. As not all of this commentary is positive, this has led to a backlash which exhorts women to accept other women without question or comment (the argument being that women get enough grief from society as it is).
While I wholeheartedly agree that this argument is true, and acknowledge that everyone has different boundaries when it comes to taste, I fear that at the same time as rightly avoiding being discriminatory and judgemental, we've also lost the subtler values of having discrimination and judgement, or are made to feel that these no longer serve a purpose.
Of course matters of taste change over time, and many of the Golden Age dancers we admire so much for their grace and femininity were considered scandalous and in breach of good taste in their time. Bellydance has always had an uneasy relationship with other types of performance (e.g.Burlesque, Striptease), and some aspects of Bellydance such as particular moves and costuming have blurred those boundaries further which causes concern for those dancers and teachers who make strenuous efforts to have Bellydance recognised as a legitimate art. There will always be some crossover, but equally there will be Bellydancers who have no relationship with these other disciplines - are their opinions not equally valid?
I believe it is fine to have one's own taste, otherwise no art form would be recognised at all, and that may change itself over time; equally, what one might be happy for others to do, one wouldn't do the same oneself (getting older can play a big part in that!). As a teacher I also think it's important to give students some guidance to form their own opinions; some historical context so that their judgement can be informed.
For me it comes down to this. I may not like what you do (/wear, etc.), and we might disagree on whether it's Bellydance, but I will defend your right to do (/wear) it (as long as no animals are harmed) to my dying breath. I accept that we all have our own definitions of good taste and artistry, and that so-called 'slut shaming' must be challenged and removed, but I'm unhappy about shutting down discussion altogether, as where it is conducted with respect and an honest interest in the opinions of others, this is how we move art forward through a combination of consensus and difference.
Cultural Appropriation & Belly Dance
|Posted by Abbie on November 12, 2016 at 1:15 PM||comments ()|
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.
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.
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….
… 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 through a spring meadow in soft focus – 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. Having said that, words can of course be successfully reclaimed.
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!
Abbie Mason (Alanya) November 2016