Gilded Serpent presents
is Belly Dance?
Stories- 25 years of Ethnic Dance in the Bay Area
First Presentation in the New Symposium Series by World
of Fine Arts Lobby,
June 10, 2003
Report and Review by Sadira
On June 10,
2003 the World Arts West organization, that produces the Ethnic
Dance Festival in San Francisco, began the first of it's symposium
series, held at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This
symposium, open free to the public, presented a panel of well
known dancers and musicians representing Middle Eastern dance
and its various aspects. All of the dancers who were asked to
be on the panel had once been judged to participate in the Ethnic
Dance Festival held in San Francisco at some time during its 25
has been much controversy surrounding the particular groups
and soloists who have been chosen to represent the Middle
Eastern Dance category in the Ethnic Dance series throughout
its entire 25 years of production.
The open symposium
was developed in the hopes of opening discussion among artists
in the field of Middle Eastern dance who represent different styles.
It was hoped to find and answer the following questions:
"What is authentic?"
"What is the duty of the presenter to be culturally inclusive
to that form of dance?"
“Can it be authentic when danced by performers from regions
outside the culture?"
" From Cabaret dance to American "Tribal" style
to a male dancer's perspective, our panel of pioneers and innovators
will discuss and demonstrate this dance form. Join us and ask
questions in this informal setting."
Kharazi, who has been a production manager for the Ethnic
Dance Festival since its inception 25 years ago, developed this
symposium to see if some of the controversy about the different
styles of dance and cultural interpretation could be addressed.
The panel consisted of prior dance performers who had auditioned,
been judged and picked to represent the category of "Middle
Eastern Dance" throughout its many years of existence.
of you not familiar with the Ethnic Dance Festival program (and
the way in which a group or soloist
is picked to perform during the three weekends in June) I will
lay out its components of selection. By creating an ethnic dance
show, it was intended to present only those dances that are representative
of various cultural, ethnic-regional dances and who broaden the
scope of audiences exposure. A troupe or soloist must fill out
a very detailed application form. It covers many questions about
the origins of the dance being proposed: including its cultural
or symbolic meanings, appropriateness of music used, history of
the dance, and other pertinent questions. Next, a panel reviews
the applicants, choosing to audition those it feels represent
a diversity of dances.
the panel considers the judges’ scores and comments and
chooses performers to participate in the Ethnic Dance Festival.
These guidelines have blurred considerably during these last 25
years. For that reason, this symposium was held.
this year were: Mahea Uchiyama , Amina
Goodyear, Lulu (a male dancer with
Habi'Ru Troupe), Malea De Felice , Carolena
Nericcio (of FatChanceBellyDance), Nana
Candelaria, and Mary Ellen Donald
(the latter representing the musician portion). Each panelist
was asked to address these major points:
1. Experience in Middle Eastern dance.
2. Dance background in Middle Eastern dance.
3. History of dance experience and involvement in this particular
4. Listing teachers.
5. Explaining origins of the particular dance style.
6. Discussing attitudes towards the vast differences among dancers
representing Middle Eastern dance.
7. Answering the question: “Do you believe that being non
native to the particular culture that you claim to represent in
its dance form is irrelevant or would this constitute "cultural
I was hoping
for a lively discussion between so many varied styled dancers
on the panel. Some participants were at quite different ends of
the spectrum. Presentation of the dance varied widely among all
of these non Middle Easterners. Each panelist was eloquent in
addressing background. Due to the short length of time provided
in the symposium (one and a half hours), there was not really
much time to get to the depth of the matter at hand. By the time
each panelist had introduced himself and his particular background,
it was already time for the question and answer period.
were definitely differences in beliefs between some of the dancers
on the panel regarding their particular style and how it related
to Middle Eastern Dance in general, (or how they interpreted what
they did). Yet the main dynamic questions posed were only lightly
commonality and link that was mentioned repeatedly, was how
the music inspired and was the cornerstone of the dance.
person had chosen to become involved in this style of dance was
also a recurrent theme. The love of the music, its nuances, the
feelings the music invokes (so unlike other regional music) was
the common thread that bonds dancers and musicians alike, no matter
what style they intended to emulate. I won't reiterate all of
the panelists’ entire interviews, but each was unique in
his background in dance. Each panelist discussed what he believed
was aesthetically correct and his ideas of the "Americanization"
of a dance.
Mahea's background is in traditional Pacific Island Dances. She
immediately became interested in North African and Middle Eastern
dance styles, partly from her own heritage from the Sudan and
Nubia. When she performed at the Ethnic Dance Festival in 1994,
she presented a Nubian styled Middle Eastern dance and concentrated
only on that one region for the audition. She felt that was close
to her own roots and background.
Amina began dance classes soon after she had started her family,
back in the ‘60s. She was taught by a dancer at the Bagdad
Nightclub in North Beach and remembers the music as being
incredible. What changed her dance style, and her understanding
of the dance, was seeing a Egyptian dancer, Fatima Akef,
perform. She began to see the differences in the styles, and studied
with Fatima. Amina has visited Egypt many times, and she studies
not only the songs and music, but the language, which has a direct
bearing on the understanding of the dance subtleties. Amina refers
to herself as an Egyptian style dancer.
Lulu, who dances with John
Compton and troupe members of Hahbi'Ru, spoke of the major
influences of Jamila
Salimpour on many dancers who started at the same time he
began. He mentioned Jamila's interpretation of the dance and the
choreography that she created, which was based, not on actual
ethnic reproductions, but Jamila's own versions. The Renaissance
Faire was where Lulu first started his dancing under the
Jamila Salimpour "ethnic" style.
Malea began dancing in the early '60s. She was introduced to it
on a trip to Europe and fell in love with the music and movements.
Malea also studied dance with Jamila and performed at the Renaissance
Faire. She referred to Jamila's style of dance as "American
Belly Dance Style". Malea has become known for her accurate
and detailed ethnic dance style. She has studied with the famed
and Malea performs many of the traditional forms of dance from
Carolena Nericcio started with Masha Archer during
the ‘60s. Masha had her own unique style of dance that mainly
incorporated her artistic background and dancing with a group.
It was not any particular form of dance from the Middle East,
but a designed style of her own. Caroleena explained that "Tribal
Style" is a fusion of many styles that were put together
to create an artistic expression. "Ignorance is bliss!"
she said. She prefers the partner choreography that has come to
represent "American Tribal Style". She also says that
modern primitive influenced her dance style, i.e. tattoos,
piercing, independent artist statements. She has followed popular
interest and what she believes that audiences want to see (especially
geared towards the short attention span of American audiences).
Nanna Candaleria studied with a variety of well known dance instructors
from New Mexico to Colorado. Her first lessons, she admits, were
learning from Serena's "How to" book.
Some of her teachers include Cassandra, Shareen
El Safi, Suzanna Del Vecchio, and Eva
Cernik. She doesn't feel she can categorize her dance
as one style or another. Her dance is her own particular blend
and how she responds to the music. She claims that she has learned
through osmosis by watching other dancers, and working with live
musicians. She does not believe that she performs traditional
Egyptian style dancing and still refers to it as “somewhere
in the category of American Belly Dance."
Mary Ellen Donald told of the great love for the rhythms of finger
cymbal patterns she developed in dance class. She was told by
both Jamila and Bert Balladine
that her strength was dominant in her musical and rhythm abilities
and that she should study the drum and eventually teach. Locally,
she was the first woman drummer in Middle Eastern music, and the
first percussionist to publish her own books on finger cymbal
and drum instruction. Mary Ellen Donald is a virtuoso in the various
types of Egyptian, folkloric Arabic, Persian, Armenian, and Turkish
music. Playing finger cymbals started her on her path. She then
gave an incredible cymbal solo to demonstrate the music and the
use of finger cymbals as a percussion instrument.
moderator, at this point made a few comments to reiterate what
she felt were the main contributing factors regarding dancers
in America who dance any form of "Middle Eastern Dance."
Though I agree with her on her basic premise of cultural appropriation,
and the importance of respect in what a dancer claims to represent,
her comments seem somewhat caustic.
feeling surfaced of "Belly Dance" as it is performed
in America is not a true art form. Lily said that most American
dancers perform a type of American hybrid comprised of various
components taken from different areas of dance. The result
is not a traditional or culturally accurate representation
of Middle East culture or dance ethnography.
the problem with appropriation of the names from cultures whose
dances are not being performed as they would be performed by dancers
from those regions. She summarized the style that we do here in
America as "dances done in the name of fantasy". She
introduced the concept of respect in what dancers call and identify
their styles when they are not representative of a particular
culture from the Middle East, Egypt, or North Africa. She stated
that because of this disparity, "Belly Dance" is not
held in high esteem by other dance artists and said it was a form
of "hippie-gypsy illusions".
agree with much of what Lily said implying American stylization
is a corruption of Middle Eastern Dance.
was an eye opening experience for me to hear that this is what
audiences and other artists feel regarding our dance form. The
panel was asked a question from the audience: "Is a person
who is not a member of the country or culture able to overcome?"
Diversity of feelings and ideas emanated from all the panelists.
I admired Carolena for admitting that her style is American and
a combined fusion of fantasy and staging. Yet, within the context
of ethnic dancing, and under the auspices of dancing in a venue
concerned with ethnic dancing, this should not be considered a
dance that represents true ethnological and cultural dance from
and Amina felt strongly that a dancer must understand the various
styles of dance from their regions, along with the music that
is used for each particular dance. It is preferable that dancers
study with dancers from a particular tribe or culture, when possible.
Mahea made the elegant statement that one should be sensitive
to an art form that is not from ones own culture. One must remain
respectful and mustn’t claim to be doing what he does not
actually know. Amina believes very strongly that dances should
be done from their true base and cultural reference. When she
performs Egyptian style, it is traditional Egyptian.
and Nanna performed 5 minute segments to show their style of dance.
Amina performed an intricate Egyptian taqsim. Malea did a traditional
style rendition of Tunisian. Nanna did a beautiful dance that
incorporated many styles. Amina also corrected the commentator
for her use of the epithet, "Belly Dance", saying that
it was taken out of context long ago.
World Arts West Staff
Lily Kharrazi, Jack Carpenter, Denise Pate,
Julie Mushet (ED), Isabel Fine, Gigi Jensen
that because of the current cloning trend of American Tribal style
dance, some are doing a disservice to the original cultures whose
music and dance are being usurped in ignorance and unconcern.
When we borrow from another culture, we must take care not to
marginalize. We could corupt their entire ethnicity if we are
not careful. We may show what is a fantastic and fanciful stage
performance and have it supersede the original dances from real
people, cultures and regions. This can add up to a form of "cultural
genocide". I believe that we dancers have to come up with
more ideas such as symposiums and frank discussions of the context
and differentiations in the dance. Perhaps we could do it among
ourselves first, and then to a wider audience.
At the end
of the symposium, it seemed obvious that there is a great need
for more of this frank and honest look at the dance, and how organizations
like the Ethnic Dance Festival pick representatives of dances
that should reflect an ethnic base. Unfortunately, this has not
been the case with the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Committee. However,
a door is opening toward candid discussion and understanding the
as always, there is room for all expression in dance art that
remains true to that which it represents, and not confusing
it with dances that have been redesigned for popular consumption.
significant get discussed, explored in depth at this symposium?
Unfortunately, it barely touched the surface!
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
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