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Ask Yasmina #4

Feminine Spectacle, Workshop Requirements, My Styles of Dance

by Yasmina Ramzy
posted 3-4-09

Question: Some people believe that bellydancing reinforces the characterization of "women as sexualized spectacle". Others consider bellydancing an empowering, feminist practice. How do you address these opposing views?

Answer:Both can be true depending upon the view of the Bellydancer and the view of the spectator. From ages 14-21, before I was a Bellydancer, I lived in a Buddhist center with celibate monks and nuns. I was always taught that sex is a very holy expression of the miracle of the universe and an expression of infinite love. I feel that Bellydance is the perfect vehicle for this message.

Many women who study Bellydance find it empowering because the archetypal movement and nuance they are tapping into ends up rewiring their view of their own womanhood and its importance.

People who may be more in tune with the last 2000 years of sexual denial will experience Bellydance as a negative thing. Bellydance movement is often an expression of enjoying being sexual, so when one practices these moves, it has the effect of a new appreciation of one's body and its sexuality. Being comfortable with your sexuality, male or female, is a very important factor in being comfortable with yourself, as sexuality is so intimate and integral to every human being, in fact, every living creature and, in fact, life itself. It is often the driving force behind almost all decisions we make in life. So freeing up this life force can make life in general go smoother. By the same token, Bellydance is fast becoming globally popular, exactly because it is a way of overcoming this historical inner oppression.

Question: We are a group of 15 well-rehearsed mature dancers and we have been turned away at a number of Guest Teacher Gala performances. We were told that the host loved our performance and would love us to perform at their event but we all need to buy the workshop registration in order to perform on stage in the Gala. Doesn't this seem unfair when we have welcomed these same hosts on previous occasions as soloists and their associated troupes on the stages of events with, often, larger prestige and exposure with no strings attached?

Answer:I understand one must cover expenses, but then the merit of the guest teacher or featured performers should sell the tickets, not bribe people.

Dancers, who are willing to pay to be on stage, are perhaps not always ready to be there.

I am sure the dancers of your troupe would respect a response that they are not of a caliber that is high enough for the event or the roster is full. I have taught at some events where I found out after that this was their rule of thumb, and it made me very uneasy to think that some people were attending my class so they could get on stage, not because they wanted to learn something.

Since presenting the first International Bellydance Conference of Canada, I have been approached by teachers in many areas of the globe offering to host me in a workshop in their home country on the condition that I would, in turn, present them as a teacher at my conference. The answer I always give is the following; "I am so honored that you would like to invite me, but please do so because you feel I have something of value to offer the Bellydancers in your area and not for any other reason. At the moment, we have chosen the teachers for the upcoming conference, but if you would like to perform on the Main Stage, please apply with the appropriate material and then 7 to 8 adjudicators will decide if you are a good fit for the upcoming conference". This seems like a decent answer to me, but no, instead, I was often responded to with anger and the phrase: "Everyone does this!" and “What is your problem?” I doubt any self-respecting artist would participate in such activities—besides, just because it has been done, does not make it right. Once, one great artist approached me, but it was based on mutual respect and the fact that we both would have hosted each other anyway, and we both knew it.

Where is the respect for art if it is all about scratching each other's backs? I feel that this kind of treatment of the business of Bellydance is what drives the art to more and more amateur depths.

 Whatever happened to artistic merit and promoting a higher and higher caliber in order to help our beloved art form get a leg up?  I wish that people would not be so quick to try to make a fast buck on the back of a beautiful dance that has the potential to help many people. I wish that they would remember the joy, inspiration, and very often, enriched self-esteem that Bellydance gave them, and thus, honor this and give back, not exploit.

Question: I understand your work involves an amalgamation or fusion of many different kinds of Middle Eastern dance. Would this be accurate? How do you distinguish or characterize "Bellydancing" and the different styles of Middle Eastern dance or dances? Does this distinction matter?

Answer:I am familiar with and teach about 14 different styles of Middle Eastern dance, three of which are under the category of Bellydance and the other 11 are folkloric and/or spiritual trance dances such as the Zaar Exorcism ritual or the Whirling Dervish. Each style has a character, a musical style and a realm of movement. Within each realm, there are limitless ways of expression. Some of the architecture (or physical movement) is shared between some of the styles, but the nuances are very different. Bellydance, in particular, has borrowed from many of the folkloric styles but is presented with its own character and nuance.

When I am teaching or presenting a piece for educational reasons (which can be in a nightclub or a theater), I work with the traditions that I learned in the Middle East, everything from Bellydance to Milaya to Tannoura; I feel I have a responsibility to pass on this knowledge—as long as I have the energy and people are curious to learn. In order to pay respect to these rich and beautiful traditions, from which I have been so blessed to experience, I try to be as clear as possible about the differences and distinctions. Once they have discovered the fascinating stories and character behind each tradition, I find that many students and audiences become more interested in Folklore than Bellydance.

It is a very different story when I am the artist wishing to express music, an idea or a feeling whether choreographing for a company, a soloist or improvising myself. (I much prefer improvisation rather than choreography for myself as a soloist.) Then, I am just expressing, pure and simple. Because my training is predominantly a wide range of Middle Eastern dance, it will have many elements from Bellydance, Zaar, Saiidi, etc. but it is, by no means, traditional. In the end, I think all artists feel this way and find it very debilitating to have labels and delineations. 

When I travel, I find it fascinating how different cultures have interpreted Bellydance and, indeed, the Folklores. I find it often says a lot about a people when you notice which are the aspects of Raqs Sharqi that they emphasize and which are left behind or not even acknowledged at all. Whether traditional or not traditional, Bellydance or not Bellydance, distinction or not—it is interesting knowledge for history. I believe that one has nowhere to go if they do not know from where they have come. I believe that you have no right to call yourself a Bellydancer if you do not know who Samia Gamal was. However, in the end, we are all just dance artists expressing ourselves; so who cares about the labels?

I have fought very hard for the last 28 years with arts councils and the mainstream dance world, which are dominated by Ballet, Modern, and Contemporary dance to receive the same recognition that they receive and the same kind of validation as a dance artist. My argument has always been: If it is bodies moving, it, therefore, is dance! Maybe it is not Martha Graham technique, and it does not look like Barishnikov’s, but what I learned in the Middle East, and how I express myself in dance is that which counts.    


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