Author in Kahiko (ancient style) costume
Gilded Serpent presents...
The Ethics of Fusion
by Naajidah

As an Old Style Cabaret dancer Iíll confess that fusion isnít my favorite form of dance, but Iíve seen some extremely talented fusion style Oriental Dancers use some highly innovative techniques and thoroughly enjoyed many of these pieces. Iím not totally against fusion, but I am deeply concerned.

If the culture that youíre borrowing your moves from objects to your fusion, does it matter? Are you being respectful or exploitative if you borrow steps from a culture that doesnít want their music and dance used that way?

I recently attended the Bellydance Superstars show when it toured through the Midwest and like everyone else, there were parts I liked and parts I didnít like. But the one section that troubled me the most was the ďBellynesianĒ section. I understand that this dancer is not the only one combining aspects of Polynesian dance with her Oriental Dance, but hers was the first opportunity Iíd had to see this style of fusion. I understand that many people are teaching/taking workshops where this new craze is taught and Iíd like to share with you why those in the Polynesian and Polynesian Dance community find the use of Polynesian dance and culture in this manner extremely troubling.

Iím also a Polynesian Dancer. Iíve been studying teaching and performing this style for several years, and have had the opportunity to study with Kumu Hulas (master hula teachers) and other Polynesian dance masters (Tahitian, Samoan, Maori, etc) both on the mainland and in Hawaii. When I talk to Polynesian people and Polynesian dancers about fusion, they are horrified by the idea of people taking aspects of their culture and art form and then using it in another dance style.

They are about as upset as you might be if you heard about some entertainer in another country taking aspects of your religion (Eucharist, Kaddish, etc) and incorporating it into their dancing for entertainmentÖ

The Trade Wind Dancers
left to right- Nicco in Auwana costume (modern blue hula dress), Ashley in Tahitian, author in Kahiko, Ann in Maori

because in some instances that is exactly what you might be doing! Polynesian dance is a beautiful art form: the music, the dances, the nuances of meaning behind those dances, the costuming. I can understand completely why you would see this and want to include it in your fusion style Oriental Dance. However, there is another aspect to Polynesian dance. Not all Polynesian dance is secular (nonreligious). Even those that are secular often have their roots in the mythology and religion of the Polynesian people.

I havenít polled every Polynesian person and every Polynesian dancer in the country, but I can tell you that those that I have talked to are offended by this new fusion craze.

To them "Bellynesian" is another example of exploitation by outsiders and a terrible insult to their beliefs.

To read the history of any of the Polynesian peoples is to read about being conquered and exploited by whites. What the military and merchants didnít steal and/or destroy was horrifically repressed by the missionaries. The Polynesian culture was almost made extinct by this, not just in Hawaii but Tahiti, Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and many, many others. What has been preserved has been done so by the hard work and efforts of the Polynesian people to retain what little of their culture wasnít stolen from them in the name of the almighty dollar, Victorian sensibilities and religious extremism. For a real eye opener, try researching information on how the Kumu Hulas courageously hid hula, their mythology, dance, culture, music and even their language from the Missionaries in order to save it.

If it werenít for these Kumus, this culture might have been entirely lost.

Our group with our implements-
p'uili (split bamboo rhythm sticks) and
uli uli (feathered gourds)
Right up to the 1970ís there was a lot of pressure put on native Hawaiian schoolchildren to not speak Hawaiian and not perform their ancient dances.† Auwana style (modern) hulas were okay, but dances in honor of the old Gods were not. Those that wanted to learn the old hula were ridiculed and in some cases expelled from their schools for learning the traditional dances, chants and language. Can you imagine the pride that the Polynesian people now feel because, in spite of people going to great lengths to destroy their culture, they were able to preserve it? Or, 'the reverence they feel towards their culture in light of what theyíve had to do in their own countries to keep what is theirs from being destroyed by invaders?

The Polynesian people have worked and fought very hard to retain their culture and rightfully take a deep pride in what has been preserved. Some Polynesians resent that someone like me, a Haole (white person), has even been taught Hula, especially the Kahiko (ancient and often religious) style of Hula. Only by proving to those Kumu willing to teach us that we do respect and honor this art form have we had the privilege to learn it. Itís taken years of hard work by those Haoleís in the Polynesian dance community to prove that we are worthy of being taught some of these dances.

Now along comes "bellynesian"! This is exactly what many feared! That non-Polynesian people would take these dances out of context and exploit them, change them, and abuse them.

When you take aspects of Polynesian dance, music and costuming, and fuse it into your dance you may think you are showing your admiration and respect for the Polynesian culture and people. You may think that itís harmless because, after all, itís so pretty and fun why shouldnít you? All those beautiful flower leis and hakus (headpieces), all those cool hau skirts and iiís (Tahitian grass skirts, and hand tassels), all the neat implements like Maori Poi Balls and uli uli (Hawaiian feathered gourds). I can understand your attractionÖ


author holding an ipu

But when you fuse things like Tahitian hip moves, Maori Poi balls, and other aspects of the culture into your Oriental Dance, it isnít interpreted that you respect or admire Polynesian dance, it's taken as a huge insult.

Many in the Polynesian community and Polynesian Dance community see this as another example of exploitation, of complete disregard and lack of respect for their viewpoint, their culture and their RELIGION!

"Bellynesian", using Poi Balls in your tribal dances, Tahitian hip moves in your drum solos or Hula in your dance? How is that any different than what was done in previous centuries to exploit the Polynesian culture for personal and financial gain?

To put this in perspective, how do you think African American people felt, when during the vaudeville era, whites would put on ďblack faceĒ make-up and perform? Exploiting Polynesian culture for your Oriental Dance is pretty much on the same plane. Just as youíve learned that itís rude to show the palm of your hand to an Arab during a dance, or that itís an insult to show the bottom of your feet, Iím hoping that you will try and understand that fusion of Polynesian dance into any other form of dance is a horrible insult.

I truly understand the interest in Polynesian dance and culture, but if you really are interested why not show your respect and admiration for this culture and art? Learn the dances! Study the history! Help preserve this wonderful art form. †Many of the Polynesian teachers I have had the privilege to study with have recognized that their culture is being lost and that the best way to preserve it is to teach it to those who love and truly respect it enough to learn and help preserve it. Show them a real willingness to respect their culture, learn the dances and keep them pure.

Please donít exploit and insult an entire society by making a mockery of the dance. Yes, itís hard work, and will take time, but you will have the privilege of learning about a wonderful culture in the process.

Mahalo (thank you) for taking the time to read this.

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Sonya in 2006 BDSS show

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