Entertainment or Art?
If it ain't broke, don't fix it! However, for many years the field of Middle
Eastern dance has become "broken" in the minds of some of its
more adoring aficionados and dancers, both in its countries of origin and
in its new western locations such as Europe and the United States of America.
As dance formed in countries of the Middle East, it had a certain proscribed
status and not a very elevated one at that! It was always called "Dance" (in
the local languages, usually Arabic, "Raks") but was often modified
with a descriptive name such as "Raks Assaya" (cane dance), "Raks
Beledi" (dance of the countryside), "Raks Shamadan" (dance
with candelabrum), etc. or in Turkish "Danssi Oryentale".
But let us set the issue of
titles aside. Dance was included in major and not so major life
event celebrations such as weddings, engagements, births, and other
family gatherings in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.
were standard movements such as the dancer roundly
and soundly caressing her own clothed belly as she
danced, sometimes undulating and rolling her abdominal
area as she did so. The movements were, and (I must
emphasize) still are, seen by westerners as salacious,
if not just plain crass and silly.
The fact that the gestures
arose from the cultural connotations of marriage and procreation
in Egypt has little relevance in America. At any rate, some of the
dance movements are considered ridiculous (meaning laughable) and
The dancer who possesses a
great deal of muscular skill and some modicum of artistic judgement
may present herself as a solo entertainment artiste ("fanana")
and may even eventually be considered a "star" who commands
considerable remuneration for her shows. Another dancer may simply
be a skilled member of a troupe, which is rare in the Middle East,
as we, in the west think of troupes. The current day troupe dancer
would not be considered an "artiste", since she would
never be expected to make individual artistic interpretations or
communicate individually with the audience. Most often, troupe dancers
are like chorus lines; that is, to especially shine or do anything
differently from the choreographer's direction and intent is to
subvert the whole group effort. The standard is to move as the others
move, and not to stand out in any way. In this case, the true opportunity
for artistry lies with the choreographer for the group, but since
the choreographer does the work without benefit of the audience
in attendance, it is not possible to respond to the energy that
would be created by an interactive communication.
I realize that the newly developed
western troupe forms (namely American Tribal Style and Neo-tribal
Style) attempt, in a small way, to address the problem of lack of
spontaneity by following a lead dancer who does the "spontaneous" choreography.
Why this does not fully work is that the leader is extremely limited
in her rate of response and choice of movements and steps and detail.
The fact is
that her fleet can only move as quickly and responsively
as its slowest and least talented "ship".
Like a fleet of ships, innovation and anything extraordinary
can spell disaster and will result in chaos.
So when I speak of the "fanana" (or
artiste), I do not include any troupe dancer.
There is also a difference
of note between the Middle Eastern Entertainers' troupe and our
western idea of a troupe. (Notable exception: The Aswan Dancers
of San Francisco who are not afraid of slapstick) In the old days
of Egypt, until the turn of the last century, entertainment troupes
consisted of dancers, musicians, magicians, jugglers, acrobats,
They went from
party to party and were highly sought, though, unless
you were an entertainer yourself, you would not want
your daughter to marry one. It was not a desirable
So is it any wonder that the
Western public cannot suddenly deem Belly Dance respectable but
an ART form too?
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.
Our collective problem in
Middle Eastern dance centers about an accumulative and rapidly growing
disenchantment with being considered mere "entertainers." We
find ourselves rated by other dance forms as a non-disciplined ephemeral
form of entertainment with little or no artistic content. The beginning
level Middle Eastern dance students who are most shocked at the
difficulty they have relaxing enough to learn Middle Eastern dance
technique are often ballerinas. Disciplined ballerinas imagine that
whatever the skills are, their own prepossessed and hard-won dance
skills will allow them to master this "non-disciplined" technique
in a couple of lessons, at most!
In our quest for recognition,
we have created a fertile ground for women with lots of time on
their hands and, sometimes, voracious capacity to collect data from
strangely obscure sources to create "That" which never
was. We can manicure the movements, name them, and infuse elements
from the ballet--which has earned its recognition. We can consider
ourselves educators of the general public, and do other such gyrations,
but we are loath to face the fact that this is a dance done to create
fun. It is fun to dance. It is fun to dance solo. It is fun to show
off. It is fun to dress up. It is fun to be applauded and remembered,
and to have touched the life of another in a moment of celebration
It is not fun
to realize that, by nature of our origin, we are inclusive
of all those would-be dancers who come to play, and
so we are rendered unable to be exclusive of dancers
(and self-appointed instructors) who are less than
competent, nay, damned bad and ill-prepared! We are
forced to accept guilt by association.
We find ourselves becoming
the therapists and supportive "sisters" of untalented
dancers who sometimes are far beyond us in education and sheer intelligence
but dearth of emotion and grace.
In order to feel barely equal
to the other dance disciplines that do not accept everyone
who wants to perform, we struggle relentlessly with minor issues.
have been as picayune as what to call ourselves, what to
name our dance form, how to credential our dancers and teachers
so as to
exclude some who are not to our liking and personal standards.
However, in the act of becoming exclusive or by demanding stricter
we change that niche
the dance originally filled; namely the living dance of
the people in honor of celebrating life itself by use of music,
It is an anomaly
to exclude individuality in a form whose basis is predominantly
personality and emotional content, and whose technique
are often secondary.
Though we may long for recognition
and status among other dance forms and institutions of education,
and we may ache for accolades from the general public, at what cost?
If you give up your red dress because society says red is uncouth
and it is uncivilized to wear red, and you make a pink one to wear
instead, you no longer have a red dress or your own element of self-expression.
Middle Eastern dancers must gather courage, wear the red dress and
be satisfied with the stir it causes in gentle society.
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6-7-99 Becoming a Fanana
of the Belly Dance-
Instead of a musical slave, I believe it is your calling as a dancer to interplay
with the music.
Assaya Instruction at Najia's Studio
Demonstrated by Rawan El-Mouzayen (Arab-American, age 3)
5-23-03 The "It
Between the two men, my dance teacher and my artistic lover, how could I not
learn to bring the movements from the core (heart) to the outside?
I'd like dancers to understand how the ideas of color, texture, tone, shading,
etc. can also apply to the art of speaking through movement.