CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR.
A Case against Standardization in Nomenclature for Belly Dance Instruction
August 4, 1999
in what you wish or pray for, because you just may receive your
wish! Frequently all of us dancers and teachers have heard and have
been immersed in the politically correct new "Danspeak".
Oriental dancers now struggle with the same issues of legitimacy
that arose just as often in the past. "We need a standardized
book of terms so that we can speak to each other about our dance
art! This will put us on a par with Ballet and other dance disciplines
as well!" Current voices plead.
I agree that it would be so much easier if we teachers had standard
names for movements and technique. Perhaps expediency is not what
we should be wishing for, however. We Oriental dancers do not speak
one common language, and those of us who do speak the same language
cannot decide whether an elevator is a lift or a truck is a lorry!
And.just what kind of truck is it, anyway? A Jimmy? A tanker? A
pick-em-up? A dump truck? An eighteen wheeler? A big rig? Let's
get specific here!
Back in the 1960's when I first became interested in ethnic dancing
lessons, belly dance had barely hit the ground running here in California.
It was touted by many aficionados as the "ancient dance of
the Pharaohs", and I was attracted to it for various colorful
reasons. Its foremost charms were its ethnicity, its "oral
tradition", and its loosely constructed lore of instruction,
which was, at that time, highly creative, uncommonly sensual, and
glamorous. My main
instructor used to refer to Belly Dance as "The back door to
the glamour of show business". Well, any port in a storm is
welcomed! In those days there were numerous places to find employment
as a dancer. The ubiquitous Belly Dance Festival had yet to be invented!
There were a few instructors
who were guru-like in their teaching roles. They believed that
each "secret of the dance" was to be guarded zealously.
Each teacher of the era took deep personal and possessive pride
in developing methods for producing a troupe or at least, a phalanx
of professional quality dancers who could be expected to "carry
on the tradition". But what and whose tradition was it?
We all marched forwards dissonantly
with our instructional agenda based in that which Bert
Balladine petulantly refers to as "Cultural Imperialism".
Cultural Imperialism is loosely defined as the outsider's pompous
tendency to reach into a foreign art form, categorize
it, intellectualize it, then morph it into something more acceptable
to other outsiders.
I thought of my own dance style as "Interpretive
Oriental" much like the fine arts I had studied at the Universities
of Washington and California. My vision was firmly based on artistic
Orientalist European fantasy mixed with instruction from a variety
of dance teachers, without benefit of videos and musical cassettes
(which had not been invented at the time). Teachers and friends
taught me Arabian style folkloric dance, and Turkish cabaret-style
dance which they, in turn, had learned person to person and transmitted
down to me through the ages. Dancers from other dance forms thought
us hairy and wanton Berkeley hippies who carried tokes in our assaphinity
bags hung around our dirty necks along with our little vials of
patchouli. Back East in "The Big Apple", dancers such
as Serena and Morocco
were dancing and creating the first dance studios totally devoted
to the Middle Eastern dance and musical arts. Out west we became
either tribes or individualists.
Belly Dance was not called Raqs Sharqi, or even Oriental Dance,
for the most part. Jamila
Salimpour sometimes referred to Belly Dance as Danse
du Ventre for those of us who hung around the University and
fancied ourselves intellectuals, artists, and artisans. (My macramé,
tapestry weaving was only surpassed by my harpsichord playing at
We delighted in our
individuality, our freedom and our adventure into the Middle Eastern
culture, without benefit of video or travel, as it were.
I was employed by a Greek-American
family to dance twice weekly in a Berkeley folkdance taverna, which
specialized in folkdance lessons from all lands. I had little need
for any dance that was not the favored danse du jour with Turkish
music. I had limited desire to learn, or even care about, Egyptian
Ghawazees, Rababbas, or canes for Raks Assaya. In other words,
the order of the day was to dance with rampant individualism and
to learn only on a "need to know" basis. Had I been confronted
with the vast sea of terminology and jargon that is now used, I
am almost certain that my creative approach to the dance art would
have been thwarted.
is insidious outside the middle-east. It seeps into our experiences
without notice, often changing the experience from one of "feeling
and being" to one of "doing and mimic". We have
sought out the Belly Dance as a last bastion of emotional expression
and feminine sensuality. Now that we have tasted some modicum
of success and power through performance, some of us now seek
to codify the dance, possess and absorb it, transforming it to
our own personal museum of ethnic Arabism or Turkoman. Rather
than learning to interpret music, we have often concentrated on
naming everything and have turned to wanting things to be easy
to teach and harder to learn rather than easy and joyful, if adventuresome
and troublesome, personal discovery.
This afternoon I sat with Leila
Haddad and Bert Balladine discussing the current issue
of adopting standard nomenclature for belly dance movement.
Leila clutched at her
heart and exclaimed, "Why? In whose language would it be?"
I asked the follow-up question,
"Do you have specific names for your country's dance steps
and movements?" The look of horror and puzzlement on her face
and the torrent of discussion that followed answered my question.
Readers of Gilded Serpent are located in many different countries
and speak many different languages. Likewise, so are dancers!
If any country's teacher, including native Arabs or Turks, were
to create a book defining specific steps and movements of Oriental
dance, would it freeze the dance in time like a dinosaur! In adopting
it, we would deprive ourselves of the rich history and tradition
of the self-expressive oral tradition, which are ornamented by personal
touches of artistry and individual uniqueness.
Belly Dance seems to
be a last bastion of (especially) woman's reclamation of her own
body and its ability to move in mysterious, sensual, and captivating
ways. Dancers who wish to find true Oriental Dance will find it
in self-discovery. Attempts to own and imperialize it, by assuming
instructional authority, legitimization, credentialing, certification,
and otherwise limiting pursuit of the form, will transform it
into just one more frozen bit of dance history.
Cultural imperialism, through
the not-so-simple act of standardizing names of movements, steps,
and positions, will close one more venue for expression of human
interaction through the oral tradition. Potential melding of spirit,
music, and movement will be curtailed as well as the poesy and fun
of an adventure into personal discovery. No amount of authority,
or ease and clarity for instructors could be worth the loss of such
a valuable treasure!
a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
the Certifiers By Najia El-Mouzayen
...this has occurred because of the current need
to be correct, and within certain predictable standards of competence
rather than special, unique, outstanding, unusual, memorable, or
even (gasp!) emotion producing...
the Certifiers, The Chicken or the Egg? Part Two By Najia El-Mouzayen,
... artists and stars are born, not schooled. Youve
either got it, or you dont
Constitute Copying? My Musings about Sharing Dance"
I could still feel her pain as she spoke.
Entertainment or Art?
It is possible to be an artiste in a non-art form
in the sense that one may be skilled, professional and artistic
at the business of entertainment.
Dance Emotion, Part 1
"The place of dance is within
Dance Emotion, Part
is not going to care, or even notice, that a dancer did a high-stepping
Fandango Walking Step with an over-lay of a Soheir Zaki Head Tilt
and a really fine ......