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Dance for Dancers

by Leila
posted December 15, 2010

When you look into the audience during a belly dance performance, who do you see? If you’re in the West, more often than not, you see other dancers. Let’s face it; outside the Middle East, belly dancing has never enjoyed a large general audience. There were havens of course, the Arab clubs, where audiences were accustomed to, and expected to see, a belly dancer in the show. Most of the American dancers I admired when I started began their careers in these Arab clubs. Bassma of Seattle, Aziza of Portland, Yasmin in DC and Suhaila in LA were among my favorites. Some of these women struck out in new and bold directions once they left the clubs. But all of them acquired their fundamentals outside the dance community. Back then, non-Arab women who taught belly dance started in Arab clubs and then transferred their knowledge to the classroom.  Sadly, after September 11, everything changed. Most of the clubs folded and dancers were left dancing for other dancers. 

This lack of a Western public isn’t for lack of trying. Miles Copeland’s Bellydance Superstars has tried to take belly dance main stream. The Oriental Fantasy shows by Beata and Horracio Cifuentes from Germany are another example (although when I saw their show in the USA, the majority of the audience was dancers). Both cater to Western tastes, yet neither has broken through on a large scale. In the end, belly dance performances in the West are still mainly patronized by dancers.

The only general public that exists for belly dance is in the Middle East.  Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and to a slightly lesser degree Jordan, Syria and Morocco all have a public that watches belly dance.

When a dancer performs in one of these countries her audience has expectations - just as an audience of belly dancers has expectations.  What I have noticed, however, is that these expectations are now quite different. For example, most dancers will be disappointed if a performer does not do an innovative choreography with impressive moves. But if she does do the choreography, Arabs may ask, “What is she doing?” I know many Egyptians who have attended belly dance performances outside Egypt who are confused by what they saw.

Art created for other artists will evolve differently from art created for the masses.

Audience This is not to say the second lacks creativity or the first will eventually become unrecognizable, but the gap between what belly dancers find interesting and what the Arab general public finds interesting is widening. 

How can Western dancers understand the differences between dance for dancers and dance for the Arab general public? YouTube is one resource.  Literally, thousands of dance performances are at your fingertips. Unfortunately, these clips often lack audience feedback. In the Arab world, people can be extremely private, and their reaction to a dancer, even in a public nightclub, is not something they want on display. Many clips also lack context. Is the dancer at a wedding, nightclub, festival?  Each venue requires different audience interaction skills. And clips from Egyptian films lack plot information so their performance context is lost as well.

There is also a language barrier. The language used to search for a clip can indicate cultural biases and preferences.  For example, type in “men’s Khaligi dance” in English and pornographic clips of women “dancing” with Khaligi music will appear.  Now type in “raqs Khaligi ragali” with Arabic script (this is a direct translation) and you will get men doing traditional Khaligi dances.  “Raqs sharki” written in Arabic text will get vastly different results than “belly dance” written in English.  Type in “Egyptian Dance” and you could spend years sorting through the results. 

Another way to compare different expectations is to attend dance festivals within Middle Eastern Countries. This can foster cultural understanding. But a word of caution - Egyptian festivals, with their huge attendance, have become big businesses.

The Egyptian public is kept out of these festivals. So even when a dancer comes to Egypt and performs at one, her audience is mainly other dancers.

AudienceAny Egyptians present are either connected to the dance industry or are wait staff for the hotels.  Also, Egypt’s most well known dancers are not necessarily the ones performing or teaching at these festivals - just as some of the festival stars are not well known in Egypt.  Consider this, the first group of dancers make their living from performing and have little contact with the formal dance industry. The second group most likely has the skills to perform for the general public but has allied themselves with the aesthetics of the dance community. Of course there are dancers who both perform and teach in Egypt. Nevertheless, the festival shows may not necessarily represent what the Arab general public looks for. 

As for the festival classes, some Egyptian and foreign teachers have discovered that teaching foreigners what they want, steps and choreographies, brings more students - even though it is far from what they would have danced as performers.  Overall, attending dance festivals is one way to gain insight – but a dancer may have to dig deeper.

Another way to bridge the gap is to perform in an Arab country.  There are many places, but the largest Arab audience is in Egypt. In the last few years a huge number of foreign dancers have come to Cairo looking for work, even though the decline in tourism has made the market extremely competitive. Some well-known dancers in their own countries could not find jobs in Egypt and returned home wondering why they didn’t appeal to Egyptians. Greek audience

Of those who do find jobs, many have no desire to make a name in Egypt. They only seek to raise their profile among other dancers.

Note: their dance doesn’t have to reflect Egyptian esthetics if they work in western tourist venues – a lost opportunity, in my opinion. Other dancers may work for a few months at a single Egyptian venue (sometimes only once), or do a wedding now and then, upload it on YouTube, and then push their names on the workshop circuit.

In the past, dancers came to Egypt to discover what made Egyptian dance quintessentially Egyptian - and succeeded. Time on stage with an Egyptian audience and immersion into the culture is invaluable.

Now, dancers come to Egypt to market themselves to other dancers. Strange, when not long ago, foreign dancer Sahra Saeeda dedicated her career to understanding Egyptian dance, Samassen became the Egyptian nightclub darling, and Asmahan, with her tableaux as a springboard, made a huge name for herself.  

Outside of Egypt, the Lebanese public is, arguably, the second largest dance consumer in the Middle East. The Lebanese TV show “Hiz ya Nawam” brings foreign and Arabic dancers together to compete.  The winner is usually from an Arab country. Foreign dancers argue that the contest is biased and that the foreigners were better dancers.  Yet besides a judging panel, the general public also calls in to vote.  This can be a great learning experience for those with open minds, but difficult within the time constraints of one short TV series.

Dancers may ask, “Why do we care what the Arab public wants?” I have seen comments like this on YouTube.  Enthusiasts of this point of view raise many arguments;

  1. they are elevating the dance by moving it from the nightclub to the stage,
  2. they are removing the negative stereotype held by the Arab public,
  3. they are standardizing the movements and adopting systematic Western teaching methods. 

But aren’t they just taking the Arabness out of it? 

Orientalists generally pick the shiny parts of whatever Arab object catches their eye, and leave the rest in the cultural muck.

What dancers have left in the muck are the parts most tied to culture, the parts most Westerners have difficulty understanding:

  1. humor
  2. a sense of the community over the individual
  3. the power and brazenness of those who exist on the fringes of society
  4. “Dela3” along with a complex idea of femininity
  5. a close contact with the audience

These things are hard to discover at a dance festival, on YouTube or in a TV show. It takes deeper exploration and a willingness to go beyond the glitzy “Oriental Dance” industry we have created. 

It is one thing to understand these cultural connections and choose to ignore or change them. It is another thing entirely not to grasp their place as part of the art form.

Ultimately, the question is - What will become of an art practiced only for other artists? Will it continue to spark a new era in dance and point it in new directions?  Will it grow and flower into something Western publics will appreciate - and create a new general public? Will the Arab public appreciate this “new belly dance” or, because it lacks anything recognizable to them, retreat completely from it? I don’t know. What do you think?

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