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Gilded Serpent presents
What is Belly Dance?

Telling Stories- 25 years of Ethnic Dance in the Bay Area
The First Presentation in the New Symposium Series by World Arts West
Palace of Fine Arts Lobby, June 10, 2003
A 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 year history.

There 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?"

The symposium flyer stated:
" 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."

Lily 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.

For those 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.

By January, 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.

The panelists 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 dance.
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 assimilation?”

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.

There 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 touched upon.

The commonality and link that was mentioned repeatedly, was how the music inspired and was the cornerstone of the dance.

Why each 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
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
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
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
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 Aisha Ali, and Malea performs many of the traditional forms of dance from North Africa.

Carolena
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
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
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.

Lily, the 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.

The 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.

Lily mentioned 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".

I agree with much of what Lily said implying American stylization is a corruption of Middle Eastern Dance.

It 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 specific regions.

Both Malea 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.

Amina, Malea 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

I believe 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 bigger picture.

Hopefully, 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.

Did anything significant get discussed, explored in depth at this symposium?
Unfortunately, it barely touched the surface!

 

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