The Ethics of Fusion
by Miles Copeland
of us Americans who have spent their lives growing up in foreign
lands, thereby living a foreign culture on a daily basis, knowing
the local people up close and personal as PEOPLE, we tend to view
“culture” differently from Americans looking in from the outside
with untutored eyes.
attitudes of the European colonists before us we Americans (relatively
fresh to the world stage) did not automatically look upon the
local inhabitants as fundamentally different from us but basically
people more like us than not.
be jerks, some funny, some inspiring, some frustrating just as
one would find among local Americans growing up in Des Moines.
Of course there are always cultural differences but we tended
to see these as minor -- for example: as an American Protestant
might regard a fellow American in the neighborhood who was Catholic
or Jewish. However we did have one thing in common with our local
friends that an American growing up in Des Moines would not have.
We both came to recognize what we came to loosely call the “White
Man’s Guilt Contingent”.
groups of Americans growing up elsewhere may have adopted a different
term, but the idea would be the same.
could also call it “The American Guilt Syndrome”. The phenomena
is basically this: well meaning Americans feeling guilty for
the success of our culture and its often intrusive impact on
When we see
fast food chains turning every American town into carbon copies
of each other, we feel bad seeing the same thing happening all
over the world. Generally, ex-patriot Americans don’t like this
much either, but Oh boy--did we welcome good American Hamburgers
and milkshakes getting to Beirut! So did the locals who thought
this was cool too. Both of us still went and bought falafel and
shawerma but now we could enjoy both. Hell, even in France where
they know good food they had Le Drug Store right there across
from the Champs Elysees and it was as full of French people as
a sushi bar in LA would be filled with Americans of all stripes.
I don’t think the Japanese feel that the thousands of sushi bars
across the world are examples of foreigners stealing their culture.
We Americans living abroad, and the locals as well, tended to
look with amusement and derision on those Americans more concerned
for local culture than any local would ever have been. If anything
the locals found such support condescending as if they could not
defend themselves and needed Americans to be concerned for them.
“White Man’s Guilt” groups often reacted to their shame by voicing
at every opportunity their appreciation of local culture while
at the same time as offering disdain for Western intrusion and
commercialism. The idea was that these cultures had some special
aspects that would be lost and we would be the ruin of these precious
societies. Well, it’s quite true that much culture has been lost
which in some respects is a tragedy. However, the “Guilt Groups”
would never come to terms with the simple and undeniable fact
that with “advanced society intrusion” also came the cures for
horrible diseases, dramatic increase in life expectancy, decrease
of infant mortality, eyeglasses so one could see, hip replacements
so one could walk again, education, food on a regular basis, electricity,
cell phones–all sorts of stuff we take for granted. Additionally
they would also never come to terms with the fact that the people
all over the world want to watch TV, drive a nice car, play video
games-- just like we do. If we do it, and let our offspring do
it and we pass laws insuring such freedoms so we can all do it
who are we to interfere in other countries or be concerned for
other societies wanting the same benefits even if it also destructive
to some aspects of their traditional culture.?
everyone, people are not so different as cultural purists would
like all of us to believe, and that is a good thing in my view
as it undermines the foundations of racism entirely.
If we were
to really preserve any culture, like that of the Polynesians,
we would have to eliminate everything from the outside. Not only
is this impractical today in an ever shrinking world but the Polynesians
themselves would be horrified at the thought that they could not
have electricity and all the other good stuff. The only way to
pull it off would be a government exactly like Afghanistan had
under the Taliban. We all know what that meant for the general
population especially its women. The Taliban was built on a cultural
purity concept wrapped up in a primitive interpretation of Islam
. The Taliban recognized very well and quite correctly that you
cannot preserve a belief system (read culture) with any “purity”
if you allow outside influences that are fun, life preserving
and enhancing. Because the average person is basically the same
and will want the same things if exposed to them. Consequently
TV, music, movies, dancing, books (except one), and education
of women were banned by the Taliban
concern for Polynesian culture could be an example of the “White
Man’s or American’s Guilt” group that I have been writing about.
I say this because she is NOT Polynesian nor has any official
status to represent Polynesians and here she is writing about
being concerned for them whereas they are unconcerned. I do not
question her concerns, which I am sure are genuine, but I hardly
think the Polynesians themselves would object to people all over
the world becoming more interested in their culture, even if it
is through one dance troupe offering a variation on the theme,
and doing it expertly and beautifully. It could even help Polynesian
tourism which is big for them. Meanwhile I can tell you that I
have been warmly received by the Polynesian dance organizations
I have been in contact with to buy music. Additionally I have
even been asked to help them promote their shows in America because
they are not having great success breaking into this market. I
and Sonia have in fact been invited to Tahiti
and are working on plans to go. We will film the experience to
include in Sonia’s forthcoming “Bellydesian” DVD.
It is a good question when Naajidah asks, “When is copying
exploitative and when is it respectful?” I ask this. Should
Americans be “horrified” by the Beatles and Rolling Stones playing
Rock and Roll (a pure American cultural invention) and changing
the British music community exploiting all American blacks today?
I personally have not heard the protests and I have been in the
music business for 37 years. Now that the general practice of
cheating musicians and song writers out of their royalties are
over (as happened in the early days of the music business regularly)
I have no doubt that they are all happy when their work is utilized
by others because they get paid for it just like the Polynesian
musicians I have licensed music from will profit from the BDSS
and Sonia’s work.
might have a greater case to argue if Polynesian dance were all
about religion. In practice, Polynesian dance has become largely
a tourist attraction, as is Hula in Hawaii and visitors are encouraged
to participate. Meanwhile I can assure Naajidah that in no way
is anything in our show meant to “insult” some religious sensibility.
If on our trip to Tahiti, I was to learn different we would react
accordingly. I should also add that Sonia herself has danced professionally
in the top Polynesian troupe in the USA for a number of years
before joining the BDSSl; so she knows a thing or two about the
dance and would never be disrespectful in any way. That is just
If I was
to don my cynical hat, I would offer the opinion that the only
people I can see becoming “horrified” at the inclusion of Polynesian
moves, costuming and styles into one of our dances, would be competitors
who want to find fault with our show. Though I don’t think for
a minute that is where Naajidah is coming from, I could easily
assume as much, as she does perform Polynesian dance. We have
certainly had similar criticisms from some bellydancers suggesting
our dancers "do it wrong,” which is strange, of course, because
there is no agreement even in Egypt with “what is right”.
have occasionally suggested Arabs would be “horrified” by the
inclusion of the Tribal style in our show but I can tell you
that this style is extremely popular with Middle Easterners
who come to our show.
posts on the various bellydance sites, I think it is fair to say
that the bellydance community certainly has its own “White Man’s
Guilt” contingent. Occasionally, it is suggested that at some
point or other the BDSS are “insulting” Arab culture. Given that
the status of bellydance in the US is far higher than it is in
the Arab world, I don’t think there is any danger of that being
taken seriously. In fact, in the entire three and a half years
of the BDSS existence I have had not one Egyptian and indeed only
one Arab profess to be upset at the BDSS as some sort of cultural
the contrary. The only critique from an Arab source was the
number two executive in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture who
insisted (as a cultural favor) that I NOT include bellydance
as part of Egyptian culture because he found it embarrassing.
having been accepted by the Director of the Cairo Opera House
to allow the BDSS to perform there I received a curt rejection
notice stating they did not allow “such art” in that venue. At
least he called it an “art”. The committee apparently had overridden
his acceptance and has never allowed bellydance to be performed
at that venue. Interestingly, when the Director accepted for us
to perform there, it was on condition that not one single Egyptian
or Arab bellydancer be in the troupe.
of my “guilt” thesis, I put forward the fact that the only people
criticizing the BDSS on cultural grounds are Americans and other
Westerners. I am sure some have genuine concerns, but I would
suggest others are simply self-serving attacks professing the
supposed BDSS lack of “authenticity” versus their “authenticity”
as a means to sell their take on the dance in competition with
us. In still other cases, I am told, critique is driven by the
apparent fact that attacking the BDSS gets attention for the attacker,
making them more known in the community. I generally find this
only objection is when such attacks make this art seem petty
and amateur to any outsider peering in to see what is going
on in an art finally on the move upwards in mainstream acceptance.
As with most posts on the internet, the bellydance community eventually
sees where someone is coming from and only valid critique sticks.
Overall, I have found it a very fair community, certainly more
so than the mainstream music business I have experienced. I continue
to enjoy the dialogue and controversy as it gets people thinking
out of the box (including me) which every art needs on occasion.
I hope Naajidah will take my response in the spirit it is given,
and I would welcome talking to any of her Polynesian friends that
feel that what we are doing is in any way offensive. Meanwhile,
we will continue to include Polynesian influences in at least
one number of each show as I would hate to forgo the beautiful
work Sonia and the others in the troupe do. Our fan mail in support
of it also makes me committed to doing this for the long term.
SuperStars 2005 show in San Francisco Herbst Theatre, Photo
by Monica Berini
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
The Bellydance Superstars
Show In Perspective by Miles Copeland
are many factors to balance, and ANY show can be improved. The
point is to also know the limitations that one faces in doing
all the things one would like to do.
The BDSS Experience and
Miles Copeland; Doing What He Does Best by Sausan
though Miles Copeland’s vision is similar to that of mine
and the majority of belly dancers I have canvassed in my lifetime,
he and I differ in our mission approach to elevating the dance,
and this is where the discussion became a heated debate.
Taking Good Care of our Stars
by Miles Copeland
of all, as we now need them consistently; we have to free them
from financial worries by giving them job security including such
things as health insurance.
The Ethics of Fusion
If the culture that you’re 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 doesn’t
want their music and dance used that way?
Back to Basics by Najia
Belly Dance is most meaningful when we define it as a
communication of mutually held emotional response and truths between
Interview with Safaa Farid by Leila
These days there are times I feel I've seen everything an Egyptian
dancer can do in the first five minutes of her show. She doesn't
change. But foreigners study the dance very hard and they put
much time into their show so that is it interesting for a whole