[Ed note: The following article was posted by author jlewis@netspace.net.au (Jennifer Lewis) on 960421.0937 to the med-dance mailing list, republished here with permission.]

"Because of the development of this thread, I'm posting my article earlier than I had intended. And invite comment."

"Prior comment... I have not been to Suraya Hilal's workshop, and I am not deriding the American belly dance scene. I am using both of these as examples of interpretation of dance, and to show how dance changes and develops." - Jen

by Jen Al-Amira


If you look around Melbourne today, the belly dance scene is booming. An unprecedented number of schools have opened, we now have both a shop and a resource group operating, a number of troupes perform. Workshops, school performances, individual
performances in festivals, boosted by exposure on high profile TV shows such as "Healthy, Wealthy & Wise" have made Melbourne a vibrant and exciting place to participate in Middle-Eastern dance.

The first exposure to Middle Eastern dance for people who do not come from a Middle-Eastern background is often at a Turkish, Lebanese or Egyptian restaurant. Some may be invited to Jewish, Arabic, Turkish or Greek wedding where a dancer is hired to entertain the guests and promote fertility of the bride and groom. Others may recall the Hollywood movies where no good film was without music, song and dance of some sort - including the Biblical epics.

We are all familiar with the range of responses we get when we mention that we "do belly dance"..... from "wow, that must be fun!" to "do you wear a jewel in your navel?" (shudder) to "oohhh" (with arched eyebrow and a look down the nose). However, it's not surprising that we meet with such a range of responses when we ourselves have difficulty in defining what we do. Do we dance for ourselves to have fun, or to entertain others? Is what we do high art, or a whisker different from stripping? Is one style of dancing more correct than another? These are difficult questions to answer. Caring passionately about the dance, I've given these questions a lot of thought. I would like to share these thoughts with you, and invite you to respond since this is only my opinion and you may have a different view-point.

Development of the dance in the Middle East

The development of middle-eastern dance through ancient history is rather obscure and we can only make educated guesses as to its origins. Some evidence suggests that the womens' dance of the Fertile Crescent was the mother of the dance as we know it today. Certainly there are common movements throughout the Middle-East despite the development of regional and tribal styles. It is commonly understood that the movement of gypsies from place to place and the establishment of the harems (where women from different areas mingled) allowed the introduction of movements from other localities. This blending can be seen in the use of neck slides introduced from India and the transformation of hip shimmy to foot stamping in flamenco dance. Wendy Buonaventura traces the history of arabic dance in her books "The Serpent of the Nile" and "The History of Belly Dance".
From the blend of tribal styles emerged a newer form of dance, the women's dance. Whilst folk styles may be danced exclusively by men, or women, or may be danced by both sexes together, the women's dance was danced by women for women. This concept still survives today, women dancing for women at afternoon tea parties and other happy gatherings. (Princess)
The development of the Beledi style came with the urbanisation of the population. As country people moved to the cities the style of their dance changed. Beledi style and the ghawazee (gypsy dancers) influence combined and the concept of the modern cabaret dancer was born.... a blend of styles and costuming specifically for female solo dancers. This cabaret dance is at once fluid but structured. Influenced by the West and the expectations of Western tourists, it was (and is still today) appreciated by Middle-Easterners as their dance. Despite the influence of the West, the structure of the classical cabaret performance is Middle-Eastern in concept and execution. The rythms are the rythms of the tribes. But the dance is a new and distinct dance.

Just as Westerners have diverse opinions as to the merit or otherwise of this dance, so the attitude seems to be in the Middle-East. Many people enjoy the dance, admire the dancer's skill, find it entertaining. But no-one wants their own daughter to be a dancer because of the low-life associations. Certainly there were (and always will be!) dancers who were prostitutes, or who danced or dressed more to provoke than to achieve a more esoteric goal. This conundrum is the basis of the 1960's Egyptian film of Zuzu the dancer. In this film, Zuzu the best dancer in Cairo falls in love with a film-maker, who is unaware of her real background. The film-maker's jealous sister invites Zuzu's family to entertain at a party, thus revealing Zuzu's association with "the infamous Mahommed Ali Street". The dilemma of the film-maker in reconciling his knowledge of Zuzu as an intelligent and modest woman with the tarnished image of a dancer is only slightly less painful than Zuzu's own struggle with her identity and profession.

Since the "glamour" era of the dance from the 1940's to the 1970's as available to us on video and in old film clips, the dance has changed again. The music in some countries has become more Westernised, the dance more like disco. Being a dance enthusiast is seen as old-fashioned, instead the singers are the heroes of the young. The popularity of the dance in some countries is in decline. The Islamic fundamentalist movement frowns on the dance as promoting promiscuous behaviour, similar to the manner in which Oliver Cromwell forbade dancing in England when the fundamentalists held power there. The active dissuasion of dancing and dance stars is hastening the decline in some countries, as described by Geraldine Brooks in her book "Nine Parts of Desire".

If the Middle-Eastern people are uncertain whether the dance is acceptable or too provactive for society, how can we be expected to be any more certain? The real dilemma I suspect lies with underlying sexuality of the dance. Where is the line between sensuality and sexuality, between sexual self-empowerment of women and exploitation of them?

Belly dance in the West

As a dancer in the West it is easy to be critical of the societies from which middle-eastern dance originates. Likewise, we could accept without question everything that a culture offers. Surely as our knowledge of other cultures increases we should use this as a tool to evaluate our own society. Unless we actually are immersed in a way of life, however, it is difficult to know whether our interpretation is valid. For example, in the West feminists consider that it is a woman's right to forge her own career, but in some Arabic societies this is considered a form of slavery: women should be protected from the pressures of having to juggle a career, child-care and domestic duties and so on. Those of us in the West who are "liberated" have all wondered from time to time whether our view of women's role in society is not perhaps "another male method of preventing us from reaching our full potential". It is all a matter of perspective and our cultural background.

Likewise when we take one small portion of another culture in isolation, such as its music or dance, it could be easy to misinterpret it. Agreed, music is a common language, but any language has its own dialects that allows people to put finer shade of meaning on the message. From my own experience, I used to think the forward/back pelvic shimmy was obscene and that the Egyptian style of beledi and cabaret was the highest form there is. Now I realise that both these interpretations are purely Western. The Lebanese do not consider the forward/back pelvic shimmy obscene, rather an exciting movement performed by experienced dancers. And the Iranians, Iraqis and Kuwaitis consider the Egyptian style vulgar and coarse.

It is always tempting to believe ourselves as instant experts, especially when we are doing something unusual or outside our own society. In the United States, as in Australia, few
people who study or perform middle-eastern dance or music have actually travelled to the middle-east to study, live or even as a tourist. One thing that I have noticed through my contact with other "middle-eastern" dancers on the internet (whose subscribers are mainly American) is the tendancy of people to sanitise, re-interpret and re-define the dance to the point whether I wonder whether we are talking about the same thing. For example, one dancer, speaking about the most unusual performance she had done, had performed dressed in bondage gear with a model of an aborted foetus for an earring. Other dancers have combined middle-eastern dance with square dancing, have danced to Western music such as the theme from the Disney movie "Aladdin", or have simply said that the middle-easterners are wrong!

Having been involved with the internet and international discussion about middle-eastern dance and music (mainly in English, but occasionally German or Turkish) I have been compelled to define my own attitudes towards the dance. Sometimes close examination of your own attitudes can leave you uncomfortable so it is easier to ignore this scrutiny. I discovered that I really prefer the old-fashioned music and light modern pop, the classical cabaret and beledi music. This is music I relate to best, which leaves me free to express myself. In other words, it's rather mainstream. This comes as a bit of a shock when you thought that what you were doing is exotic and eccentric!

Performance history in Melbourne

The level of interest in belly dance in Melbourne owes its roots to the hard work and dedication of a handful of dancers from the 1970's and early 1980's. If people such as Carol Larke, Melanie and Lili-Margaret had not consistantly devoted their lives to performing, teaching and promoting the dance in an enthusiastic manner, people like myself would today be frustrated in our efforts to enrich our dance experience.

In those days the number of professional dancers could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Access to information, music and costumes was limited. The formation of the troupe The Flowers of the Desert was more than creation of a performance outlet for students. The troupe became the major resource for all enthusiasts and students in Melbourne. Patiently sourcing music, videos, magazines and costumes they became a welcome contact point for the exchange of information and ideas.

Many of us first learned to dance at the Council of Adult Education where Lili-Margaret's enthusiasm and knowledge inspired us to continue on to more challenging things. And yet, enthusiasm and inspiration require a creative outlet. Carol Larke, more than anyone in recent years must take the credit for providing that outlet, at the same time as elevating the profile of the dance in Melbourne. If it had not been for her devoted and often thankless efforts in organising the All-Schools Concerts (the Belly Dance Extravaganza), many of us would have continued as frustrated performers with no creative outlet apart from our own homes. And nothing ensures the death of enthusiasm more than frustration.

As the number of schools mushrooms and the number of students snowballs, the focus of the dance scene in Melbourne appears to have shifted. Now performance is no longer limited to the restuarant scene and specially organised troupe performances. Dancers are regularly seen at folk and community festivals, Fringe festivals and busking. Anne Harkin, through her persistance has seen Club Orientale transform to Club O and finally Club Al Sharqi, which is now a regular feature of the dancers' calendar. Club Al Sharqi provides a regular outlet for creativity, artistry and good old fun. Anne, through her interest in drumming, has lead the charge of Melbourne's dancers into an exploration of folk and fusion styles. In the newsletter of "The Seventh Veil" (Feb. 1996), Joy notes that we seem to have established "...our very own style of dance costume in Melbourne, the gypsy layered-coined-olde/worldly (sic) style I would call it!" I feel this is a result of the strength of the folk/art movement in middle-eastern dance here.

In fact, Joy has pointed out to me that the number of people interested in the more glamourous costumes and accessories is very small. And yet, in the middle east, the modern costuming and style is high glamour! High heels, fishnet stockings or costumes, plenty of sequins and beads are de riguer rather than the exception. Which image of the dance is "right"?

Raks Sharqi or Belly Dance?

Much of our knowledge of Middle-Eastern dance comes to us from artists and teachers from overseas who visit and give workshops. Recent such visits which spring to mind are Aisha Ali, Victoria Laurel Grey, Ibrahim (Bobby) Farrah, and Suraya Hilal. The unfortunate thing is the bervity of their visits allows us only a taste of their vast wisdom, a glimpse of what we might learn if we had more time (and more money!). Each of these teachers have their own special fields in which they excel. For example, Victoria Laurel Grey spent years in Uzbekistan and is acknowledged as one of the world's experts in this field.

So hungry are we for fresh input, new ideas to prevent the incestous recycling of material amongst ourselves that the effect of a visiting teacher spreads like a wave through the studios of Melbourne. Who cannot smile at the sudden emergence of Sh'aabi schools after the visit of Suraya Hilal? How many of us had even heard the term before then?

Suraya Hilal has added valuable insight and ideas into our dance style. She herself has been strongly influenced by Martha Graham. It's interesting to see the cycling of ideas from West to East and back to West. And those of us, who have for one reason or another, been unable to attend her workshops and those of other teachers, have benefited from this cycling of information and ideas. However, this presents us with a problem. If we are not hearing the messages first hand, are we hearing them as intended? For example, are we hearing correctly that the cabaret style where so many of us cut our teeth, is bastardised to the point of degeneracy? What would Ibrahim Farrah think of that? Which is more authentic, the Raks Sharqi style, the Beledi/Cabaret style or the Folk/Gypsy style? Where does this leave the Dabke, the dance of people?

This also raises the question of artistic merit. Dance is after all a performing art. However, it is an art accessible to everyday people. Wherever there is music there is the potential for dance. Middle-eastern dance can be compared to western dance in a number of ways. The folk dances arise from the people. Often organised, they can also be spontaneous. Who has not attended a bush dance and found themselves heel & toeing with strangers by the end of the evening? These dances spring from the soul and unite the participants with a common bond. Classical dance, with its rigid technique and years, no decades, of dedicated toil is considered the highest form of dance. However, in a century only a handful of the millions of aspirants can reach both technical perfection and capture the poetry of emotion such that their audience is set on fire... Pavlova, Fonteyn, Neureyev. Without the divine spark, this form fails to reach into the lives of everyday people and touch them.

The final comparison I would like to make is that of those dances which originate on the street but which become popular through exposure (TV etc. in this modern age) such as rap, hip-hop, techno. One is an evolution of the other. They often lose their credibility with exposure and commercialisation yet they bring a new life to dance for everyday people. People can relate to it. Lets face it, even a well-marketed product will fail if the people don't want it. So maybe the procedure of bringing dance in from the fringe to the mainstream is a process of making it accessible, allowing people to relate to it. Dance, like any other art needs its fringe, its cutting edge, but it also needs people to popularise it. Graeme Murphy may have made headlines with his work Fornicon, but was it accessible? If not accessible, how does it enhance our lives? Madonna, on the other hand, was accessible, commercial and influential in the lives of thousands (millions?) of young women. When she lost her accessibility (I believe her sexual exploits were probably too revolutionary for most) she lost her credibility. After all, people basically don't want to be challenged too much, it might make them uncomfortable.

So that brings us to middle-eastern dance. I believe that Suraya Hilal is right, that westernisation and exploitation of the dance has changed its meaning. As a westerner attempting this dance I am acutely aware of my shortcomings. I rarely dance to songs since not speaking Arabic I cannot correctly convey the shades of meaning that would raise the dance from the mundane to the meaningful. I am aware that my gestures may take on a different meaning in a different culture, so try to understand the effect of my interpretation. But above all, I'm aware that I'm not from the middle east. I cannot claim to be authentic, to know the arabic experience, to identify with the lives of arabic women. I can identify with women who fantasise about glamour in their lives, about the common experiences of love, joy, heartbreak, grief, despair, longing, contentment, sensuality and sexuality. This is the
palette with which I paint, and whilst I can only ever turn out fakes, I can work on making my fakes as "authentic" as possible. Does it matter that my art is not high art? No-one could claim Michael Leunig as another Renoir, Picasso or da Vinci, yet his work has touched my heart and the lives of millions. So although some may not classify my work as authentic, high art, or Raks Sharqi, does that make me, the belly dancer, less valid?

How do we define ourselves?

I must agree with Glenda-Joy Stace who wrote in the January edition of The Desert Flower. I am not ready to abandon the term "Belly Dance" for something more authentic sounding. Belly dance is our Western term, and covers a variety of styles with a common root. It is instantly recognisable by people in my culture and also the middle-easterners. And the range of reactions the term provokes reflects the range of reactions to the dance in its original context. Our uneasiness at the sexual side of the dance may be balmed by giving it a different name, sanitising the movements and meanings of the dance. I understand this is the same uneasiness that middle-eastern culture views women's sexuality and the sexual aspect of this dance. The solution in the middle east is to repress the dance or the dancers.

As a feminist, no, as a whole person I claim the right to display my sexuality in a context that empowers me but does not disempower, overpower or alienate my audience, just as I would display any other experience. To deny sexuality is to deny a part of ourselves, to castrate ourselves, a mutilation as savage as foot-binding or clitoridectomy. Would we deny our other emotions to protect society's sensibilities?

As an entertainer, I give to people a number of things. Firstly I help them to identify common experience. Everyone has a favourite love-song that always makes them cry. As a dancer, I too try to touch the audience's emotions. Secondly, I try to transport them to a dreamworld through the music, to draw them is as if they too are a performer, a musician. Thirdly, I give them a part of myself, receiving in kind energy from the audience. Without this exchange of energy, the performance is flat, uninspiring and very hard work. As a performer, an entertainer, I thereby identify with my audience, because they too are part of the performance. My audience is busy being human in all its forms, seething with contradictions, not wanting to be challenged but wanting to be identified with the people around them. Is this art? I believe it is. I believe it is like the art of Ken Done which appears on scarves and bed-linen, the art of everyday life, mainstream, comfortable, disposable, rarely valued. To me I know that I have succeeded in crossing the barriers of culture through common emotions when someone says to me after a performance "I know you learned to dance in the Middle-East!"

Please send questions / comments to author Jen Al-Amira (jlewis@netspace.net.au)
This page last updated May 15, 1996 by Stefan (dduncan@efn.org)