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Dance for Dancers

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by Leila
posted December 16, 2010

When you look into the audience during a belly dance performance, who do you see? If you’re in the West, more often than not, you see other dancers. Let’s face it; outside the Middle East, belly dancing has never enjoyed a large general audience. There were havens of course, the Arab clubs, where audiences were accustomed to, and expected to see, a belly dancer in the show. Most of the American dancers I admired when I started began their careers in these Arab clubs. Bassma of Seattle, Aziza of Portland, Yasmin in DC and Suhaila in LA were among my favorites. Some of these women struck out in new and bold directions once they left the clubs. But all of them acquired their fundamentals outside the dance community. Back then, non-Arab women who taught belly dance started in Arab clubs and then transferred their knowledge to the classroom.  Sadly, after September 11, everything changed. Most of the clubs folded and dancers were left dancing for other dancers. 

This lack of a Western public isn’t for lack of trying. Miles Copeland’s Bellydance Superstars has tried to take belly dance main stream. The Oriental Fantasy shows by Beata and Horracio Cifuentes from Germany are another example (although when I saw their show in the USA, the majority of the audience was dancers). Both cater to Western tastes, yet neither has broken through on a large scale. In the end, belly dance performances in the West are still mainly patronized by dancers.

The only general public that exists for belly dance is in the Middle East.  Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and to a slightly lesser degree Jordan, Syria and Morocco all have a public that watches belly dance.

When a dancer performs in one of these countries her audience has expectations – just as an audience of belly dancers has expectations.  What I have noticed, however, is that these expectations are now quite different. For example, most dancers will be disappointed if a performer does not do an innovative choreography with impressive moves. But if she does do the choreography, Arabs may ask, “What is she doing?” I know many Egyptians who have attended belly dance performances outside Egypt who are confused by what they saw.

Art created for other artists will evolve differently from art created for the masses.

Audience This is not to say the second lacks creativity or the first will eventually become unrecognizable, but the gap between what belly dancers find interesting and what the Arab general public finds interesting is widening. 

How can Western dancers understand the differences between dance for dancers and dance for the Arab general public? YouTube is one resource.  Literally, thousands of dance performances are at your fingertips. Unfortunately, these clips often lack audience feedback. In the Arab world, people can be extremely private, and their reaction to a dancer, even in a public nightclub, is not something they want on display. Many clips also lack context. Is the dancer at a wedding, nightclub, festival?  Each venue requires different audience interaction skills. And clips from Egyptian films lack plot information so their performance context is lost as well.

There is also a language barrier. The language used to search for a clip can indicate cultural biases and preferences.  For example, type in “men’s Khaligi dance” in English and pornographic clips of women “dancing” with Khaligi music will appear.  Now type in “raqs Khaligi ragali” with Arabic script (this is a direct translation) and you will get men doing traditional Khaligi dances.  “Raqs sharki” written in Arabic text will get vastly different results than “belly dance” written in English.  Type in “Egyptian Dance” and you could spend years sorting through the results. 

Another way to compare different expectations is to attend dance festivals within Middle Eastern Countries. This can foster cultural understanding. But a word of caution – Egyptian festivals, with their huge attendance, have become big businesses.

The Egyptian public is kept out of these festivals. So even when a dancer comes to Egypt and performs at one, her audience is mainly other dancers.

AudienceAny Egyptians present are either connected to the dance industry or are wait staff for the hotels.  Also, Egypt’s most well known dancers are not necessarily the ones performing or teaching at these festivals – just as some of the festival stars are not well known in Egypt.  Consider this, the first group of dancers make their living from performing and have little contact with the formal dance industry. The second group most likely has the skills to perform for the general public but has allied themselves with the aesthetics of the dance community. Of course there are dancers who both perform and teach in Egypt. Nevertheless, the festival shows may not necessarily represent what the Arab general public looks for. 

As for the festival classes, some Egyptian and foreign teachers have discovered that teaching foreigners what they want, steps and choreographies, brings more students – even though it is far from what they would have danced as performers.  Overall, attending dance festivals is one way to gain insight – but a dancer may have to dig deeper.

Another way to bridge the gap is to perform in an Arab country.  There are many places, but the largest Arab audience is in Egypt. In the last few years a huge number of foreign dancers have come to Cairo looking for work, even though the decline in tourism has made the market extremely competitive. Some well-known dancers in their own countries could not find jobs in Egypt and returned home wondering why they didn’t appeal to Egyptians. Greek audience

Of those who do find jobs, many have no desire to make a name in Egypt. They only seek to raise their profile among other dancers.

Note: their dance doesn’t have to reflect Egyptian esthetics if they work in western tourist venues – a lost opportunity, in my opinion. Other dancers may work for a few months at a single Egyptian venue (sometimes only once), or do a wedding now and then, upload it on YouTube, and then push their names on the workshop circuit.

In the past, dancers came to Egypt to discover what made Egyptian dance quintessentially Egyptian – and succeeded. Time on stage with an Egyptian audience and immersion into the culture is invaluable.

Now, dancers come to Egypt to market themselves to other dancers. Strange, when not long ago, foreign dancer Sahra Saeeda dedicated her career to understanding Egyptian dance, Samassen became the Egyptian nightclub darling, and Asmahan, with her tableaux as a springboard, made a huge name for herself.  

Outside of Egypt, the Lebanese public is, arguably, the second largest dance consumer in the Middle East. The Lebanese TV show “Hiz ya Nawam” brings foreign and Arabic dancers together to compete.  The winner is usually from an Arab country. Foreign dancers argue that the contest is biased and that the foreigners were better dancers.  Yet besides a judging panel, the general public also calls in to vote.  This can be a great learning experience for those with open minds, but difficult within the time constraints of one short TV series.

Dancers may ask, “Why do we care what the Arab public wants?” I have seen comments like this on YouTube.  Enthusiasts of this point of view raise many arguments;

  1. they are elevating the dance by moving it from the nightclub to the stage,
  2. they are removing the negative stereotype held by the Arab public,
  3. they are standardizing the movements and adopting systematic Western teaching methods. 

But aren’t they just taking the Arabness out of it? 

Orientalists generally pick the shiny parts of whatever Arab object catches their eye, and leave the rest in the cultural muck.

What dancers have left in the muck are the parts most tied to culture, the parts most Westerners have difficulty understanding:

  1. humor
  2. a sense of the community over the individual
  3. the power and brazenness of those who exist on the fringes of society
  4. “Dela3” along with a complex idea of femininity
  5. a close contact with the audience

These things are hard to discover at a dance festival, on YouTube or in a TV show. It takes deeper exploration and a willingness to go beyond the glitzy “Oriental Dance” industry we have created. 

It is one thing to understand these cultural connections and choose to ignore or change them. It is another thing entirely not to grasp their place as part of the art form.

Ultimately, the question is – What will become of an art practiced only for other artists? Will it continue to spark a new era in dance and point it in new directions?  Will it grow and flower into something Western publics will appreciate – and create a new general public? Will the Arab public appreciate this “new belly dance” or, because it lacks anything recognizable to them, retreat completely from it? I don’t know. What do you think?

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   |       |    19 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Martha Duran

    Dec 16, 2010 - 12:12:34

    Thank you Leila! Wonderful Article!

  2. No Gravatar
    TerriAnne Gutierrez

    Dec 16, 2010 - 01:12:41

    Your article really hit home for me. I made a comfortable living as a club dancer in San francisco for many years, supporting both my son and myself, dancing primarily for the Arab audience. After 9/11 things immediately changed. The night after 9/11 I went into Pasha, I had been dancing there for two years on Friday and Saturday nights. We had one table with 6 people, compared to the normal 300 people per weekend night we had always had. In the weeks that followed things picked up slowly, but it was never the same.
    In order for me to continue supporting myself with dancing I had to make some big changes. First was learning what the American audience wanted to see and what they responded to. I found this to be very different from what the Arab audience enjoys. I then had to switch from performing in clubs, to teaching belly dance in order to earn a living.

    “Will the Arab public appreciate this “new belly dance” or, because it lacks anything recognizable to them, retreat completely from it?”
    I have seen a few of the musicians appreciate it and support this new style, but most of the Arabs I know have completely retreated from it.
    Thank you for a great article,
    TerriAnne Gutierrez

  3. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Dec 16, 2010 - 06:12:30

    Regardless of 9/11, it seems to me a very tall order to get Americans to pay attention to a rather lengthy dance show of the type that occurs in Egypt. American audiences are not geared to this: most prefer shorter numbers, a “variety show” format, and several dancers rather than one. (In short, the approach taken by BDSS.)
    Success of another culture’s art form here is perhaps based on the degree to which it easily integrates with existing American art forms: think of Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba.” He didn’t use the song as sung in Mexico, but adapted it to American rock and roll, with great success.
    BDSS, arguably, are on the right track when trying to find the American mainstream audience–not just an audience of dancers–for the belly dance arts (though I personally prefer the long Egyptian shows with one fabulous dancer I can watch for hours.) I doubt whether mainstream American success for belly dance will influence the dance created by Arabs for an Arab public–there does not seem to me to be much relationship between the two.

  4. No Gravatar
    Kamala Almanzar

    Dec 16, 2010 - 06:12:21

    One of the more compelling articles I’ve read, & it brings up many issues that are constantly on my mind in this new era of Oriental Dance. As a nightclub dancer in Hollywood & London in the 70’s & ’80’s, I never saw a western person in the audience. As an older dancer I grew rebellious & wanted to mix dance styles since I had never seen anyone do it, with the thought that I didn’t care what the Arabs thought anymore, I just wanted to embrace my western self. With the advent of Youtube Raks Sharki has obviously veered to a whole new athletic level-contestants outdoing each other with fancy moves & artistic flair. I always have to go back to the old Fifi, Mona & Sohair videos to remind myself of the style I always strived for, but never attained due to my place of birth. Nowadays if you love the dance & decide to teach, it’s almost imperative to dance for other dancers which I find terrifying & confusing because I just want to dance what I feel, but one needs to now throw in original & innovative gyrations. Dancers outside of the Middle East don’t have musicians & venues anymore, so they create their own. So the cruz of the argument might be – is Oriental dance only valid when danced by Arabs? Is it only valid when enjoyed by Arabs? And should anyone even care?

  5. No Gravatar
    Kasia

    Dec 16, 2010 - 10:12:29

    I simply cannot get over the fact, that in Egypt,  in spite of the fact that ”the dance” is ”loved” as a cultural expression, the dancers are treated/considered so poorly, read: little more than prostitutes. We already have enough problems with stereotypes in the West; even though I enjoy/support the actual dancers themselves, I will not support the dance industry in Egypt by participating at festivals. At least not until they give the dancers the real, human respect they deserve; if not for anything else, for the simple fact that they bring in $$$$$$ to the country – lots of it, especially from star struck foreign girls wanting an ”authentic dance experience”. I see the borderline ”acceptance” of dancers in Egypt as a result of the money they bring in.. who wants to lose that, right? If they see that money can be made, even if off of westerners who ”understand nothing/don’t have it in their blood” they will ”accept” the dancers…But I already have to deal with enough in the West.. Until they start treating their money makers/exponents of ”authentic egyptian culture” with human/artistic respect on a more wide spread, mass-consciousness scale, they won’t see my cash.

  6. No Gravatar
    Anthea (Kawakib)

    Dec 17, 2010 - 07:12:37

    Your articles’ very insightful and it raises important issues dancers should consider. Sometimes I shudder to think what Arab audiences think of our “bellydancing”, on the other hand as artists (those dancers who ARE artists) have the right to create their art as they see fit. But in the end, mutual understanding between artist and audience may just come down to considering the audience you’re dancing for, and introducing your dance correctly – even though many if not most of the audience may not understand, at least an attempt has been made to provide an explanation of ones’ dance.
    At the same time, I personally wish Western dancers were more considerate of the dances’ origins and culture EVEN THOUGH dancers in that  part of the world are not, yet, treated with as much respect as we’d wish.

  7. No Gravatar
    Leyali

    Dec 17, 2010 - 07:12:54

    “But aren’t they just taking the Arabness out of it?” Best line of the article.

  8. No Gravatar
    Kasia

    Dec 17, 2010 - 08:12:39

    The whole problem lies in the fact that I feel most western dancers DO take the origins seriously. But I can’t shake the feeling that the same respect is not given back the other way around… how is Tribal Fusion seen in egypt? often, not always, with *almost* contempt (“this is not our dance, what is this?”).. no, it is not your dance.. an American raised with a whole other set of cultural influences will, most of the time, NEVER be able to be ”true Egyptian dancer”.. it is a set of ingrained traits acquired from infancy, subtle perception/differences of cultural happenings/social norms/specific humor, umm concerts every thursday, music/dance on every corner, etc… They may be fascinated by it/very good at it, but… they can almost (mind you, not always) never truly BE it. So Americans develop what is American, taking from the melting pot that is America… but instead of being reciprocally appreciative of a most natural evolution, it is basically disdained as ”not true”.. well, if you mean not true egyptian, then DUH. Of course it is not …discovering hot water, are we? Is it TRUE, period? of course it is. As americans, we seem to put so much emphasis on being culturally sensitive, and into learning the roots, which I wholeheartedly support… but I feel like it is simply not mutual, generally speaking. and that is not ok, seeing as the West has brought about much interest in the subject, interest that has permitted the home country of Egypt to do quite nicely $.

  9. No Gravatar
    Farah-Abi

    Dec 17, 2010 - 03:12:08

    I think there is another layer here as well.  When we dance in a restaurant, club,cafe or party close to our audience, no matter where they are from, we have to entertain them.  The ability to make ’em laugh whether they are Arabs or Americans is part of being an entertainer.  On the stage without the connection to the audience, we lose that aspect of belly dance.   Americans will respond to comedy as much as anyone else.  But maybe we take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes and lose the passion, the funny and heck the sensuality of the dance.

  10. No Gravatar
    Jasmine

    Dec 18, 2010 - 09:12:43

    Interesting…. the qualities you say modern belly dance lacks are”

    humor
    a sense of the community over the individual
    the power and brazenness of those who exist on the fringes of society
    “Dela3” along with a complex idea of femininity
    a close contact with the audience

    However, I find that Tribal Fusion belly dance truly embraces all of these. Also, in regards to an above comment, I don’t think the goal of Tribal Fusion is to be taken seriously by an Arab audience. It’s an American version of belly dance and it definitely is more of a reflection of each dancer’s culture and not Arab culture. Not to say that Arab culture doesn’t play a part, but it’s not the focus.
    Not sure if I can comment about more Oriental forms of belly dance, but I do think you raised some valid points in the article and gave some good advice on how to bridge gaps.

  11. No Gravatar
    Monica Berini

    Dec 19, 2010 - 11:12:16

    Lots  of food for thought here for Oriental dancers. I greatly appreciate the focus on contextualizing this dance as larger than ourselves.  As a dancer and a teacher I try to work from a place that does not lose sight of the fact that this is an ethnic dance form from real places, done by and for real people. Walking a line between honoring that while also being a creative person can create an exciting sort of paradox…sometimes frustrating but never boring, and providing a constant reaffirmation that there is always more to learn.
    The best part of working within a real life/real place/real people context, though,  is knowing I always have a touchstone of sorts to stay grounded. I can look to those that came before me to anchor what I do, and I can look to what is real in the origin countries to make sure I am representing things faithfully. It keeps me from getting to big for my britches.  Staying humble and honest as an artist even as we make ourselves larger than life for our audiences is always a good thing, in my opinion.
    Here is to pulling the juicy, yummy, challenging, and Arab parts of the dance back out of the cultural muck!

  12. No Gravatar
    Jalilah

    Dec 21, 2010 - 01:12:27

    Leila’s article
    Thank you for your insightful article Leila!    As someone who I started her dancing career performing mostly for Middle Eastern audiences, and was also fortunate enough to be able to travel numerous times to Egypt in the 80s and 90s and see all the Egyptian dancers of the time, the points you make really resonate with me. I have always enjoyed the dance far more in its original setting  because of all the reasons you stated. I often feel that many of the dance shows in the West, dance shows for other dancers, can be more like contests with everyone trying to show all the difficult movements they can do as fast as they can.    You raise good questions.  I too have wondered what will happen to the dance. While I doubt seriously that most Arabs will ever appreciate many of the Western fusions forms of their dance, they may start to think about why it is that the dance is respected more in the West. My dream is that one day in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East that Raqs Sharqi will be taken seriously the way Spaniards only in recent decades began to take Flamenco seriously.   Unfortunately the Middle East is in such a mess now that I don’t see this happening anytime soon, but I will always dream about it!
    Jalilah
    Producer of “Jalilah’s Raks Sharki” CD series
    http://www.gildedserpent.com/aboutuspages/jalilahzamora.htm

  13. No Gravatar
    AmiraRa

    Dec 21, 2010 - 05:12:59

    As Jalilah said: “…why is it that the dance is respected more in the West….”
    There are many layers: we are entertainers, artists, who live and create in many different cultures: we even have different hand gestures… Only insiders can tell what is authentic and what is not.
    Is it time to start making difference between, let´s say, belly dance, and Middle Eastern belly dance?

  14. No Gravatar
    Amina Goodyear

    Dec 23, 2010 - 12:12:36

    Thank you Leila and thank you Jalilah – you both said it all. I hope everyone interested in this dance reads this article and Jalilah’s response.

  15. No Gravatar
    Salma

    Dec 31, 2010 - 12:12:37

    You are absolutely right! The “arabness” is kept out, and -such a pity- this wonderful dance art, don’t forget, has its roots in those countries. What we do in the Western Word….is it really evolution or modernization? Or just a rape of  culture?

  16. No Gravatar
    admin

    Jan 3, 2011 - 11:01:49

    The Bellydance Superstars have performed to Arab audiences in Dubai and in Morocco and we found no confusion with the audience – quite the contrary they insisted our dancers must be Arabs because “Americans cant dance like that”.  In our contract the promoters made a point of making sure we were going to include Tribal – they did not want to see only just what they already have.  They loved the modern approach to bellydance and the class of the dancers delivering it.  That appeared new to them and the women expecially appreciated it.  All to often the venues for bellydance in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world are catering to men and tourists which makes dancers dance to please that crowd.  In the West the audience is much more female so dancers are more prone to focus on dance instead of pushing sex as they tend to do in the Middle East. 

         In many ways Bellydance has grown up just as Rock and Roll did.  Its become a world dance.  Once the Beatles came along and took Rock and Roll out of America it soon became a world art with great practicitioners everywhere many beating Americans at their own game.  Bellydance is no longer Egyptian any more than Rock and Roll is American.  There is no “essence” in Egypt any more than there is in Chicago.  The big differance is that the Egyptians did not respond to the rest of the world loving what they invented the way Americans did.  The Beatles woke American artists up and Rock and Roll had a rebirth all accross America.  No one in his right mind now would consider a non American rock band somehow not having the “essence”.  The Rolling Stones, U-2, Rachid Taha, Beatles, Zucchero, The Police, Led Zepplin, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Inxs, ACDC tons of acts compete and have competed equality with the best America has to offer and we all have the benefit of it.  Where are the new Egyptian dancers?  Why has that society not responded to the respect and love of bellydance that the non-Egyptian dancers have given it?  The only thing they have contributed lately is hip scarves, costumes, and trinkets which I am glad to say gives employment to people who need it.  Their festivals are entirely about foreigners NOT Egyptians.  They make their money entirely from foreigners NOT Egyptians.  A strange turn of events.  Its a real shame. 
    –posted by editor for Miles Copeland

  17. No Gravatar
    Kamala Almanzar

    Jan 10, 2011 - 09:01:25

    I think Miles’s analogy linking Rock & Roll with Belly Dance is a valid one. However I don’t agree that there is no “essence” in Egyptian dancers. The Rolling Stones & other British musicians were trying to get the “essence” of the blues, not American rock & roll (which I don’t think had a distinct “essence”). Those bands would be the first to admit they never did achieve that undefinable quality of American blues musicians. Middle class British boys didn’t have the experience, history or genes that African American men in the south had, so their attempts created something wonderful, but totally different. Could the same be said for non Egyptian dancers? I would say yes, because most dancers can tell who’s Egyptian and who’s not – the difference being the “essence”. Dance students & performers don’t go to Egypt in droves to pick up trinkets & cheap costumes-they go to try to capture even a modicum of Egyptian dance “essence”.  Lastly, it sounds like Mr. Copeland needs to do a little research about “new” Egyptian dancers. Has he not heard of Dina, Randa & Aziza?

  18. No Gravatar
    Hanna Aisha

    Jan 30, 2011 - 02:01:48

    Hey Leila
    thanks for the article. Recently, I’vs been thinking  A LOT about it. The same question you had I think it happens here in Brazil because of the great influence of argentinian and american’s bellydance. Are we only interested in get more and more students so let’s do what the other dancers want to see?
    I think that people now are becoming more interested in rescuing the “egyptian essence”. Personally, I’m really tired of seeing “cloning dancers”.

  19. No Gravatar
    Carrie Konyha

    Mar 23, 2016 - 07:03:12

    I am one of those dancers who grew up in bellydance performing at arab events & venues within the arab communities in the region of the USA i grew up in. The first decade of my professional dance career was centralised around Cleveland Ohio and I was frequently hired to perform in Detriot Mi, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania -these areas (especially Michigan) are known to have among the largest arab communities in the USA. For me it was normal to have the accompaniment of a full live band during my shows which were primarily performed for arab audiences. My teachers were dancers who also grew up in bellydance in this same scene and taught me how to bellydance in the traditional/classical/cultural form according to arab aesthetic. I refined the cultural aesthetic of my dance artistry thru observing other arab woman dance socially at the events i was hired to perform at (weddings, night clubs, ect). I was complemented frequently on the authentic style of my bellydance and earned a very affluent living as a performer.
    In 2003 I moved to the south west (settling in AZ) thinking that there would be more opportunity for me to advance my career but what i found was a rude awakening to say the least. In Phoenix AZ there are restaurants to perform in but the pay is horrible and no one performs the classical 30 minute show format. Even at the arab restaurants. to me this is bewildering and what was passing as professional quality dancing at the restaurants was even more bewildering. What i observed was restaurants having a few dancers perform per evening but each dancer only dancing a few songs with no cohesive flow to there show. Some venues would have 2 or 3 dancers dance at the same time, around the tables but again no cohesiveness to the show. from my perspective this way of performing was not at all resembling classical bellydance and the arabs that frequented these venues really had little interest in watching these amateaur dancers hence the whole scene took a dive bomb and there was really no way to earn a sustainable living as a professional performer in the traditional restaurant/nightclub venue. To this day, 13 years later, this is still happening in Phoenix and so really the only performing i do in Phoenix is at the showcase shows I teach at which is primarily performing for other dancers.
    I personally am not a fan of neo-fusion bellydance because to me it looks nothing like real bellydance. I do teach/perform ITS that is rooted in FCBD ATS blended with my own TRIBARET repertoire which i created for the purpose of fusing ‘bellydance’ with real, authentic bellydance asesthics hahaha.
    I love bellydance because i love real Raqs Sharqui & Raqs Baladi. My interest is in keeping the true art & spirit of bellydance alive and to share it with my students and my communty. In fact am in Egypt right now as i write this. Im not trying to make a name for myself as a dancer here. Ive already gotten way more out of my dance carreer than i ever expected. At this stage of my career, when here, my objective is to observe as much as i can about the dance as it happens in its natural habitat LOL. My interest at this point is in refining my understanding of the subtleties of stylistic nuances present in the folkloric & oriental dance forms and also to also learn the language (for song lyric interpretation purposes) as well as colloquial gesturing. My passion at this stage in my life is teaching bellydance & to use my research and experience with performing in the middle east to bring my students the best curriculum for learning bellydance that i can – in the spirit of preserving the traditions and supporting the evolution of classical bellydance <3

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