Gilded Serpent presents...

Identity Through Bellydance:

Lynette Harper performing in Victoria

An Arab Descendant’s Viewpoint

by Lynette Harper
posted August 27, 2010

Writer Lynette Harper presented these ideas at “Dancing Through Cultures,”a recent conference in Ottawa, Canada that addressed culture, identity, racism and belonging among contemporary dance professionals in Canada. The conference theme arose from discussions within the Canadian contemporary dance community about whether artists coming from diverse cultural backgrounds feel that they are being treated fairly by the dominant dance culture. Speakers explored the realities facing artists of colour who participate in Canadian culture, and questioned whether there is really respect and admiration for all people who contribute to the collective notion of Canadian contemporary art.  

I’m a grandchild of immigrants, which means I’m a second generation Canadian, and I strongly identify with my Arab grandparents. Some of the themes at this conference resonate with my own experience as a longtime independent dance artist in British Columbia:

  • essential differences
  • involuntary cultural ambassadorship
  • song and dance as “instant pudding” culture
  • exclusion
  • containment 
  • media reductionism

I’d like to share some of my thoughts about Arab dance and dancers in Canada.

“Arab dance.” There’s a phrase you don’t hear very often on the west coast! Just as you seldom see a sign for an “Arab restaurant.” 

More often these days, new restaurants operated by Arabs are promoted as “Mediterranean”.  In dance, the softer, less politicized gloss is “Middle Eastern”. This is just one of the veils that complicate Arab presence amidst multicultural idealism.

So what is Arab (a.k.a. Middle Eastern) dance?

There are many answers, of course. Perhaps most easily identified are folkloric troupes, shaped by a history of constructed post colonial nationalism.  They are clearly labeled as Lebanese, Egyptian, Moroccan, or by other nationalities.  Each troupe is burdened by the expectation that it represents an Arab nation and culture to non-Arabs, an educational imperative that has been described by others at this conference.  

Folkloric performers are trapped between demands of “authenticity” from non-Arabs, and demands to feed the nostalgia of Arab diaspora communities who crave their beloved homeland dances of celebration and happiness.

A second domain of Arab dance is barely visible in North America, but can be found in Middle Eastern countries: ballet and contemporary dance, which is presented on stages around the Middle East, and in festivals in Dubai, Beirut, Amsterdam, and elsewhere.  Yet another is the highly visible form also known as “belly dance”.  It’s now part of North American mainstream popular culture. In the 1970s it involved tens of thousands of students, and today, it is a transnational phenomenon involving millions of students and professional dancers.

Belly dance is not just one form, but a complex of urban and rural genres, and multiple communities of performance practices.  Belly dance is laden with baggage from its colonial and post-colonial history. In North America it has been highly coloured by fantasy and Orientalist assumptions of exoticism and hyper-sexuality.

 In the last 50 years it has been transformed through lenses of feminist empowerment and new age spirituality, and subject to western processes of co-modification. (Belly dance in North America has been explored by many scholars, including Andrea Deagon, Stavros Karayanni, Sunaina Maira, Barbara Sellers-Young, Anthony Shay, and others.)

Since 2001, the War on Terror and Islamophobia have magnified race, gender, and politics of the dance. This has not stopped the momentum of Orientalist fantasy, nor the peculiar phenomenon of groups of women of various ethnicity (mostly northern European) performing Bellydance at multicultural events in Canada and the USA.

The folkloric troupes and belly dancers dominate representations of Arab dance in North American popular culture, and complicate the usual categorization and containment in Canadian dance discourse.  Rather than fitting into the binary of “Art” or “Culture” described by conference presenters, Arab dance is labelled “Entertainment” in popular discourse – “just a craft, not an art form”. This attitude makes it all the easier to dismiss when discussing quality and excellence in dance.

The Entertainment label nicely complements ethnocentric assumptions of a single linear evolution in dance, which culminates in western classical and contemporary forms.  It makes it easy to disregard arguments for multiple dynamic cultural evolutions, for the idea of parallel traditions with layered authenticity, hybrids, and the classical attributes of the Arab “Raqs Sharqi” genre.

All of this heightens a dilemma for dancers of Arab descent, like me: 

Middle Eastern dance forms – and belly dance in particular – provide a contradictory stage to perform Arab/Canadian identity.

Because it’s already charged with questions of race, ethnicity, authority, cultural appropriation, and concerns about class position and ethnic authenticity. 

While some Arab women turn instead to ballet and western contemporary dance, others, like me, have embraced belly dance genres as a way to connect with our cultural heritage–only to disappear behind another veil, because Arab women dance artists in Canada are obscured within a huge belly dance community. 

In three decades of performance and creation, I’ve struggled with how and where to produce and perform my dance, and my Arab decent. I have established a place for myself as a dance artist, who is only sometimes acknowledged as Arabic, at the centre of a Bellydance community.  When performing within that community of dancers, students, and aficionados, or in Arab/Turkish/Persian ethnic communities,  my choreographies are recognized as “innovative”, “unexpected”, and a "challenge to audience expectations and stereotypes”.   In theatres with mainstream audiences, the same works have been contained by media interpretations, which do not consider the meanings of the work.  Instead, the rare newspaper reviews are framed by discourses of Entertainment and Orientalism, such as: “This attractive dancer shed her jewel-colored veils very prettily as she spun, whirled and undulated” (1980); “Lynette Harper… gyrated in a stunning outfit of burgundy, orange, green, and gold in this sexy, powerful solo… all the boldness and sensuality of a pro" (2000).

During three decades of dance performance, I skirted these predictable responses by participating in the more comfortable, and knowledgeable, Bellydance and Arab communities. It is only now, after completing a doctorate and affiliating with an academic institution, that I feel ready to undertake social activism through scholarly research and a dance creation project with the working title: “Unveiled: Choreographing Arab Identities in the Diaspora”.

While attending this Canada Dance Festival for the first time, I am located at the periphery of Canada’s contemporary dance community, one that holds a relatively high social status and respectability.   I’ve perched on this edge, figuratively, for some time now – quietly framing and re-framing my questions and aspirations. 

Author Lynette Harper welcomes responses from readers, and your own stories of engagement with Western and contemporary dance communities!  [ed note- Use the comment box below!]

Lynette Harper and Pete
With visual artist Pete Kohut in a multidisciplinary “Brief Encounter” at the Nanaimo InFrinGinG Festival.
Lynette's Favorite Photo
The text in Arabic says "If I was a singer", the first line in a choreography titled "If".  

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Ready for more?

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  1. Andrea Deagon

    Sep 6, 2010 - 12:09:27

    Thanks for this, Lynette.  I have experienced the orientalist misconceptions of the general public too — I love “gyrate,” anyone who says one “gyrates” fundamentally doesn’t get it.  I think we do tend to situate ourselves as entertainment though — and from what I see in restaurants, it is almost reasonable to assume belly dancers are not to be taken seriously.  You have to buy a ticket, not just a dinner, to see a concert … good luck with yours, “if you build it they will come …”

  2. Ferda Bayazit

    Sep 18, 2010 - 07:09:33

    Bravo! Maşallah!

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