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Cruz and Najia backstage

How Much Is Too Much?

by Najia Marlyz
posted July 12, 2010

One person, more than any other, captured my heart for dancing.  I was 17, and he was a handsome Flamenco dancer, performing on a stage at the University of California, Berkeley.  I knew when I began to have the opportunity to learn dance that the window for learning the Flamenco dance form had not opened for me; that moment had passed while I was involved in other amusements.  However, its older cousin, Belly dance, remained wide open!  It had the romance and passion of the Flamenco and the thrill of the dreams of Tahiti and Africa.  It also offered the freedom of expression that none of the other dance forms did.  As I studied dance through the years, I never dared dream of appearing on the same stage as my hero, Flamenco dancer, Cruz Luna, but it eventually happened!  My own dance instructor, Bert Balladine, had been friends with Mr. Luna for many years, and Bert honored me with an introduction.  Finally, I appeared in the same show with incredible Cruz Luna, and I was awestruck — which brings me to the real point of this story: when we dancers need variety in our own dance programs, we ought to include experts from other forms.  We would have been the poorer if the organizer of that show had asked a local Belly dance troupe to imitate Flamenco to provide variety to her show. 

So often, I have been given the ridiculous excuse that the Ballet Belly dance, or the Flamenco Belly dance or Tap Dance Belly dance, provides welcome variety to an otherwise monotonous program.  Welcome to whom?  Not to me!  I would prefer to see real Tahitian dances, and just as I do not mix okra into my mashed potatoes, I would prefer them pure, or at least, closely authentic.

I believe that sometimes we are going at this issue all wrong.  Nevertheless, I know it is sometimes necessary to mix forms in order to cause beginners to put their musical feet inside the entry door of Middle Eastern music. As any good instructor would advise you: You have to take them from something they understand before you can introduce beginners to something wildly different. With student dancers who are a bit beyond the beginners’ lessons, you can start anew with an old concept that you approach from a new perspective.

"The real voyage of discovery consists in not seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
 –Marcel Proust

I’ve been feeling increasingly disappointed lately, as I attend one festival and show after another, and I am bombarded with the pervasive ballet-ization and Latin-ization of traditional Belly dancing movement and music.  The old Latin musical classics come to mind particularly, such as "Amayaguena" (on compact disk -Moon Over Cairo, volume 3), "Straights of Gibraltar" (Oasis), "Thalia" (Star dancer), and numerous others.  These pieces of music are interesting, captivating, appealing, and immensely useful for capturing the Western ear of people who are new to Middle Eastern music.  As most dancers will acknowledge, these selections might be construed to be historically correct for us to use in Belly dance since the Arabs occupied Spain for nearly 800 years.  They shared similarities in language, culture, and a common link in music and dance; however, much like the story of evolution, there is a "missing link", not human, not monkey, not Middle Eastern!

I think it a deep shame that those who have loved and studied the Middle Eastern dance have become so jaded to her charms that they feel compelled to make her into something she isn’t. 

aardzedileIt is an insult to those who study Flamenco, Jazz, and Ballet for many years that Belly dancers try to re-make these forms, usually badly, into the Raqs Beledi and Raqs Sharqi before they have explored and mastered the Middle Eastern dance form fully.  Hopping from one form to another is no disgrace if one concentrates on one thing at a time.  It is the aardvark/zebra/crocodile (the “aardzedile”) about which I am beginning to despair.  He doesn’t run right, swim right, or know to whom he is appealing—put him in a large show on a fancy stage and he will get a good “hand”; however, he misrepresents the artistic possibilities of the core dance form. Worst of all, is the person who is a real dancer and performer who makes a living from teaching and or dancing the Middle Eastern form, and who feels that he or she has "done it all"; so now he or she begins to try to top whatever has gone before by presenting a poor imitation of a dance that it takes a lifetime of dedication to learn — such as Spanish classical dance.  It becomes “The New Dance Invention”! However, if one wants to be top dog, one doesn’t pursue his goal by taking retrieving lessons, or more to the point, doing a comic impression of a Beagle!  We need to commit to dance as a lifelong ambition, or otherwise, remain a dabbler and a hobbyist and abandon the role of Middle Eastern dance instructor.  If you’re an extraordinary dance teacher, take whatever opportunities you can to embrace today’s Belly dance, in the way you wanted to be seen.  For me, this usually tends to be the theatrical stage, cabaret stage, or an outdoor festival, but for you it might be some other venue or niche. (However, I would like to see it stop being a Belly-gram or a Belly-strip!).

You can stay fresh in the form if you reassess your dance every year.  Try to discover the music you already own with new ears.  Go back to some of the music you couldn’t handle three years ago; you may be pleasantly surprised how you have grown in your understanding of music.

  Listen to old music; watch old videos then apply what you feel to new recordings.  Haunt your travel agent until you come up with an affordable scheme to go to the Middle East to experience it in person.  Don’t fool yourself.  Even our best dancers and teachers usually cannot perform well in Egypt or Turkey for the same reason our best American drummers and singers do not usually go to Egypt to drum or sing.  We share with Middle Eastern people a dance form that we do not come by naturally; we are not known for having been born with this music and dance in our American blood…

Once, I had a very sharp and disturbing conversation with a woman from an English-speaking country in  Bert Balladine’s living room.  We were seated with a grou p of internationally mixed dancers.  Big blond Bertha (not American Chipmonk dancerand not her real name, of course) announced, "I don’t watch the videos from Egypt anymore!  Those Egyptians can’t show me a thing.  Why, they don’t even work at their dancing, and they don’t even sweat!"  I had just returned from Cairo and had just interviewed Nagwa Fouad for an article that I was writing.  Nagua had been drenched in perspiration at the time I made the interview!  Therefore, I couldn’t let Bertha’s statement pass without challenge.  I felt the devilish horns on my forehead gleam, as I demanded, "What are you talking about?  Have you ever seen any Egyptians dance in person?" Everyone in the room froze into silence. "No," she answered, "I don’t need to."  I couldn’t let go; I told her she should not draw conclusions from brief encounters with videotapes. (Nowadays, it would be DVDs.)  "Until you see it and experience it in person, you are not competent to judge," I hissed, as I removed her bones from my teeth, "You may be gaining fame in your country, but you haven’t yet scratched the surface of Oriental dance!" I moved to the kitchen to find Bert and tell him that he might want to send me home.

In America, and evidently elsewhere, we dancers seem to have a voracious appetite for new steps and movements, so like hungry chipmunks, we have grabbed all we could stuff into our cheeks of Turkish and Arabic steps and gestures, resorting to incorporating and mixing of Saidi, Kaleedgi, Blue Guedra, Ghawazi, etc. We’ve chewed all of them up together and spit them out and found that they have not sufficiently nourished us.  Originally, we came to Middle Eastern dance for its fantasy, freedom, emotion, and exoticism, but somehow, these values became too simple for our taste, and we began reaching into far-flung historical connections, searching for our holy temple dance in unlikely places.

It is most probable that you will not find it necessary to do poor imitations of other forms as an adjunct to your dance if you look (with new eyes) at the movements that you already know, and explore your original attraction to them.  If you want to be a dance artist, be true to your form!  Explore it from different perspectives. Use it in different ways.  Costume it.  Modernize it.  Make it old-fashioned by going back to its basics.  Rediscover its original allure for you.  Make it anew and make it your spiritual expression, and then you will not find it a necessity to justify it or legitimize it by mixing it with other forms that have risen higher in the social acceptability pool; you will not think you are stuck riding a mule in the race when you could smoke the racetrack on a real Arabian horse!

Cruz Luna


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  1. Nepenthe

    Jul 17, 2010 - 07:07:36

    Hope this inspires many dancers to take a new look at this dance and get inspired by all that it has to offer in an of itself!

  2. Ashiya

    Jul 20, 2010 - 05:07:12

    BRAVO.  I couldn’t have said it better.  We are steadily losing the true essence of the dance with the addition of “flavors” of other forms.  This is an article that I will share with my troupe and other dancers.

  3. Amy

    Jul 20, 2010 - 09:07:48

    “It is an insult to those who study Flamenco, Jazz, and Ballet for many years that Belly dancers try to re-make these forms,”
    no. actually, your article is an insult. to dance and dancers and common sense as well.
    good ballet/jazz/flamenco/et cetera dancers surely don t feel modern dance or all kinds of fusions as insults. because they do their thing and thrive to do it well, and don t feel like it s a competition of who owns the purest form. there is no “pure form” in dance, everything we have is a very very recent construct.
    you make the silly presumption that to fuse anything with belly dance is something that a bored dancer does. it is the opposite. the creative dancer will do that.  sometimes it s good, sometimes it s bad – it really depends on the dance and choreography skills of the individual.
    and middle eastern people are not “born with music and dance in blood”. everybody has to learn from scratch. another misconception that you have – your text is full of them.your body is a gift, you shouldn t set it limitations based on puristic  views (bordering on blind religion.

  4. Katherine

    Aug 2, 2010 - 09:08:03

    A great article and a comment to test the feature as requested on facebook.

  5. Sadia

    Oct 3, 2010 - 01:10:40

    BRAVO, Najia!!!
    You are so very right and you said it so very well!!  I have often felt the same things you expressed.  My example is not a mixed up animal, but a chair, table or any common thing.  I tell my students that when we take the essential nature from a chair — its “chairness”, it is no longer a chair, and we cannot sit on it, and it cannot perform its function.   Neither can we take the essence from Oriental Dance and still call it Oriental (or Belly Dance).  It is no longer itself. 
    What I regret most is seeing the long-time dancers who are trying to catch a new market by giving in to what seems to be a popular trend.  But it is also disturbing is to see so much “fusion-tribal-mishmash” being paraded as Belly Dance and even awarded and applauded as something to which we should aspire.   Something akin to “The Emperor’s Clothes”. 

    The dancers in countries where Belly Dance is relatively young, have no good role models to follow, as those who do the best marketing are not those who understand the essence of the Middle Eastern Dance that you and I know and love.   

    I hope that there are more people who think and feel as you and I do, so we can preserve the Art.

  6. Neia

    Aug 4, 2012 - 10:08:26

    As I respect your opinion and the opinion of those who want to preserve what they think is “authentic” (which is anyway a modern construct)
    you should take into consideration that it is not the goal of every dancer to maintain so called “purity” of oriental dance.

    Many of younger dancers (including me)  understands dance as a form of transmitting our own feelings, our personal understanding of music to the others. We are not middle-easterners, we do not feel music as they do and we don’t want to.
    Oriental dance is taking its own path in western world, interpreted the way westerners feel it. It is not changing because we are bored of how it is, it is changing because the people who dance it are different and have adopted it as their own dance form, not as something that has to slavishly copy the past. As we look at Egyptian dancers, I feel: this is not it, this is not me…so why should I take it as an example? This doesn’t mean we do not feel oriental dance, we are as dedicated to it as any purist dancer. We just understand it differently and try to perfect it. We keep the core, but embellish the outside. As much as you try to keep the dance in its little bubble, protecting it from change, you cannot succeed-you can never step into the same river twice.

    But I agree it should be presented as such, as modern oriental or fusion, not claiming authenticity.

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