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I am Become Pure, Destroyer of Dreams…

Belly Dancer Statue

The Belly Dance Police

by Zorba
posted January 3, 2011

"I am become death, destroyer of worlds"
Bhagivad Gita

In any field of endeavor, you will find them. Those who set themselves up as self-appointed guardians of the faith. Those who strive for their version of "racial purity". Those who will argue incessantly about absolutes in a relative universe. In my involvement with a different dance form, another troupe prided themselves on their precision and authenticity. Unfortunately, their dancing was not particularly engaging as they danced with no joy whatsoever. But they were authentic as could be and their director never lost an opportunity to tell any and all of this fact.

"The only thing that I know, is that I know nothing."

Socrates

In Belly Dance, these killjoys are often referred to the "Belly Dance Police". They are found backstage at any Belly Dance festival, on-line on Belly Dance discussion boards, personal ‘blogs, social networking sites such as FaceBook or MySpace, and professional Belly Dancing websites worldwide. The only thing they have in common is their disdain for anyone who doesn’t share their view of "how things should be ™" and are only quicker to tear each other up than to criticize and try to destroy anothers dream of beauty.

Beginning dancer: knows nothing.
Intermediate dancer: knows everything; too good to dance with beginners.
Hotshot dancer: too good to dance with anyone.
Advanced dancer: dances everything. Especially with beginners.
-Attributed to Dick Crum, a folk dance teacher

The great Greek dance researcher and choreographer, Dora Stratou, sought to preserve and protect the indigenous dances of Greece. And indeed, she did a wonderful job – sitting in the audience of the Dora Stratou Folklore Theatre in Athens, one cannot help but be awed by her accomplishment. Yet at the same time, what one sees there is a dead thing, a thing no-longer living. Like a resurrected dinosaur from "Jurassic Park", many of the dances presented are beautiful fossils out of time, preserved forever in stone.

Is this what we want for our art? Do we want a petrified dance form that is only done, can only be done, one way? If so, whose version shall we use?

At what point in the continuum of space-time shall we take this snapshot, and what interpretation shall we employ? Egypt, c. 1925? Lebanon, c. 1970? United States, c. 1893? Or perhaps Mesopotamia, c. 5,000 BCE? You’ll find proponents for all these, and more. The only thing they’ll agree on is that everyone else is doing it wrong.

"Its all in Plato, all in Plato. What *do* they teach them in these schools?"
– Professor Digory Kirke, "The Last Battle" by C.S. Lewis

This type of absolutist thinking is what has destroyed the world’s major religions, to use but one example. The same Belly Dance "scholars" who rightly decry the absolutism of the populist monotheistic religions draw the next breath and say "My way of dancing is the only true way ™."

Contrast this to the IDIC concept: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. Many people will buy into this philosophy, at least "on paper". However, a quotation found online by a guy who calls himself "The Satirist" observes:

"We claim to celebrate diversity, but when faced with diversity we complain. We try to teach our children to think ‘out of the box’, but when faced with someone who actually does, we criticize. We should be glad that we live in a country that allows ‘Freedom of Expression’".

In no way should these comments be construed as criticism of those legitimate dancers and dance scholars who want to be true to a form, a style, or an idea, yet do NOT proclaim themselves as the Goddess’s gift to Belly Dance and tear others down in order to (attempt to) lift themselves up. They do not remind everyone how important, and authentic, they are at every breath; nor do they shrill about their agenda at every opportunity whether or not their comments are either appropriate, or even on-topic.

Indeed, the legitimate purists are the first to cheer on a dancer of another style, another aesthetic, another vision. Their dancing is full of life, laughter, and joy, because they know what the true purpose of dance is.

They know their particular chosen purity of dance is only so in relation to all others. Everything in the universe is relative to something else – these dancers "get it". They know that, as a performance art, their performances are all about the audience and that the audience doesn’t CARE what’s authentic or not. As one of my teachers, Janette Benedon-Brenner says, "they want to FEEL something!". Authenticity, and the advanced technique we ALL strive for, is for the benefit of other dancers.

Janette adds that "technique is the articulation of your expression. The expression itself being the outcome."

Our dance would be poorer if, for instance, we didn’t have the Carolena Nericcios of the world. Her development of ATS (American Tribal Style) has spawned a whole plethora of new genres of "Belly Dance", bringing opportunity and joy to countless dancers. Mention should also be made of dancers such as Alexandra King, who can tell you exactly what is authentic (or not) for a given style; yet dances many styles herself. "Old Skool American Cabaret" dancers such as Cory Zamora of Fresno and Siwa of Santa Cruz can tell you the what, where, why, and how of the various components that make up the amalgamation that is "American Cabaret" style. They can tell you the "who" also – for instance the Middle Eastern contingent who insisted on the dancers performing veilwork which, as any killjoy can tell you, is "oh so inauthentic".

The fact of the matter is, nothing in the universe is constant: except change. "Inauthenticity" becomes "authenticity" over space/time – and vice versa.

The killjoys also argue incessantly about semantics – either decrying terms such as "Belly Dance" or trying fruitlessly to define them, such as "Tribal". Semantic arguments are a total waste of time – the naysayers may be completely correct from a technical standpoint – but the terms are what they are and no amount of politically correct posturing is going to change them anytime soon. Frankly, I think the semantics are a waste of time, breath, and energy. The only definition I’ve seen that is pretty useful and absolute is the one for "ATS" – and that’s only because same is still quite new in the greater scheme of things. 100 years from now, it (the ATS definition) will be a bit more fuzzy.

"Would a rose…"

Shakespeare

If someone finds fulfillment dancing "for the Goddess" in a troupe which is all about "empowering strong women", why should the self-annointed Belly Dance Police tell them they have it all wrong? They have a vision, a passion, a joy, a completeness in their quest for beauty. Who’s wrong are the self-righteous who "rain on their parade".

A quote I found on an enthusiast’s board for a topic totally different from Belly Dance shows these types are endemic everywhere (slightly paraphrased):

"There’s actually a term for people like that, its clinical narcissim. A couple of people like that travel the boards telling other people how stupid and ignorant they are and bragging about their experience. If anyone says anything they perceive as contradicting them, they get an inbox full of flame. Every profession has them and they believe themselves to be gods. When they do answer a question, its often something that anyone could have answered, but they do it in a way that makes it sound like its beneath them. Many times they don’t pay attention to what is actually said and totally miss the point. I’ll listen to them because you can often learn from other’s mistakes, but I’ll have a cargo container of salt handy. I’ve occasionally had doctors like this, and despite their best care and several trips to the emergency room, I’m still alive."

In conclusion: Dancers who are driven by a vision should not allow anyone to deter their passion nor ruin their joy. The naysayers need to get a life and get over themselves; the less attention paid to such people, the better. The ancient Delphic commandment instructs us "Know Yourself". Know yourself, know your audience, know your vision and – full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes!

 

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   |       |    13 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Mahsati

    Jan 4, 2011 - 09:01:38

    In some ways, I think that the labels of ‘belly dance police’ or ‘purist’ are designed specifically to discount those who try to immerse themselves in the cultures and history of the dance. I see many dancers with opinions about what the most optimal form of the dance is – the author has his own and each dancer develops their own over their involvement with this dance form. As long as there are artists involved, there will be controversy and stylistic differences.  Are there dancers out there who hate on any form not their own? Of course there are. I have met them on all ends of the belly dance spectrum from fusion to traditional and in other dance and art forms. As they say, “haters gonna hate.”

    A respect for the cultures and artists that make the foundation of this dance is absolutely vital to my own dance. I strive to continue to grow in this living art with reverence for the many traditional forms of this dance and without negativity towards other peoples’ artistic visions – fusionist and purists alike. I see nothing wrong with dancers who want to incorporate non-traditional moves, props, costuming, or music as long as it is labeled correctly and not marketed as something it isn’t. If you are dancing with a fiery sword, don’t call it Egyptian style and I will adore your performance. If the dancer spins a yarn about how the fiery sword is deeply important to Egyptian culture and has been a part of the dance for thousands of years? Well, I will want citations and resources to back that up. As the author says, dancers who have the contextual knowledge like Alexandra and Cory mentioned above, are already aware and label their dances appropriately based on the stylistic and cultural information they have gathered over the years. I don’t think that this information makes them in any way stunted as dancers; I think the lack of this kind of information is what most of the people termed ‘belly dance police’ are decrying as a loss to our art form. It does no good to continue at the forefront of your art if you don’t understand its history. Think of how many wonderful variations that this dance has produced over the years. Without the cultural or historical knowledge, how many of these would dancers have to re-invent when they could have learned them instead and then added to the great project of this art instead of re-treading ground that has already been covered?

    There is nothing wrong with being academically honest and rigorous in your dance knowledge. It does not take the fun out of dance and it can only make you a better dancer because you know more and have more artistic paths to choose from. It doesn’t harm any dancer to label their performances accurately. Sure we can all re-invent the wheel (or the hip drop), but how much easier is it to continue to develop an art where you are working from such a rich base of current and historical dancers, teachers, performers and researchers.

  2. No Gravatar
    Tanya

    Jan 4, 2011 - 10:01:49

    The root of this dance is ethnic, it is based in the culture of a people who have shared it with the world. To remove the culture is to disrepect the dance.

    To chastize those who choose to respect the cultures that this dance comes from is in itself policing. You may have seen an authentic folkloric troupe dance without passion, but that does not discount the entire community of dancers who devote their time and studies to that particular form. Shall I tick off all the times I’ve seen half-assed tribal, fusion with technical prowess but empty soul, sharki that lacks spark? Do I dare judge the entirety of those communities based on a sigular performance by a singular dancer or troupe?

    Goddesses have nothing to do with bellydance, should you choose to worship your goddess with dance by all means do so, but don’t purpurt the fallacy that this dance is in any way goddess worship.

  3. No Gravatar
    Tracy

    Jan 4, 2011 - 10:01:58

    “indigent dances of Greece?”
    Possibly you mean “indigenous dances of Greece”?
    There is a difference between people having an opinion about what they like or don’t like and being “the belly dance police.” I have yet to see anyone actually arrested (from the standpoint of “stopped from doing what they are doing”) by said police. Mostly what people don’t like about “the police” is what they say. Where do you draw the line between “the police” and those who just express their own opinion? Isn’t that simply based on how much you agree or disagree with the speakers?
    “Frankly, I think the semantics are a waste of time, breath, and energy.” Labeling, categorizing, and describing are how humans communicate with each other. Correctly describing something has a huge effect on how things are perceived. If I pay $200 for a workshop called “Joy of Balkan Dance” and it’s a choreography taught by Mahmoud Reda to Gan el Hawa, won’t I be upset if that’s not how I wanted to spend my money?
    The academics and dance scholars that we admire are concerned with definitions and semantics, because without them they can’t talk about, write about, and study these dances. These same people know that dance changes and evolves, but it does not stop them from needing to use language to describe dance.

  4. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Jan 4, 2011 - 03:01:59

    I think it’s relevant to read this article in combination with some of Zorba’s previous writings; if this is done, one perhaps gets a sense of the author and where he is coming from.
    It seemed to me that inordinately heavy criticism of Zorba (as a male dancer) was delivered by some for his choices, particularly in costuming. Some critics did not like his combination of bared belly and beard; others suggested he choose costuming along the lines of some of our most respected male dancers such as the late Bobby Farrah.
    When I followed links on Zorba’s website, http://www.doubleveil.net, including his “Galleries” link, I came across a 2010 Rakkasah performance titled, “Mirage: A Bellydance Company” peforming a skirt dance. Zorba looked like–OMG!–a typical dancer in that company. How odd might he have looked, I wondered, had he taken some of his critics’ advice, and worn a gelabiya to look “more masculine?” He would have been out of place in that troupe, with a discordant result.
    For me,  Zorba’s current article is all about pursuing one’s artistic vision, despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Hear, hear!

  5. No Gravatar
    Mahsati

    Jan 4, 2011 - 04:01:43

    Excellent comments, everyone -I am truly proud of this community.
    I have read quite a bit of Zorba’s writing over the years and have great respect for anyone who is following their artistic vision, but this specific article purports to be about dancers and the dance scene in general rather than a personal journey.  I think that encouraging antagonism in the dance community by creating false dichotomies is not helpful for us as a whole. Each dancer owns and deserves their own opinion, but there is nothing damaging about those opinions being different and none from recognizing that opinion and facts should be in harmony. By placing ‘belly dance police’ as purists and traditionalists in a negative light, this automatically creates a superior category of ‘artists who follow their own vision.’ My thought is that these things are not at all at odds and it is not accurate to place them on opposite ends of a spectrum.
    In the article, the author states that, “The only thing they have in common is their disdain for anyone who doesn’t share their view of ‘how things should be ™’,” but that is precisely what the article does by creating a false sense of strife with the author’s vision paramount against the dancers classified as”killjoys” for following their own vision.
    I have danced and worked with performers in all different genres of this dance form and have found many, many people with their own vision of the dance. This is an incredible and wonderful thing and adds richness and life to our community. Believing that cultural sensitivity and history is important to our dance is not a bad thing. Neither is believing that the modern fusions to the form are a new evolution in dance.  As individuals, we may have interactions (positive or negative) that color our understandings and reactions, but it is only by being intellectually honest and open that we can move past the emotional hurdles of our lives to focus on bringing the best of ourselves and our creativity to our arts.

  6. No Gravatar
    Joey

    Jan 6, 2011 - 02:01:03

    I  thought only the Bitches or should I say the Bitchy people were the Fashion police-like one’s of these. Dancing I thought was for having fun from H to T and the Heart, for me it’s like flying. That’s all     Kisses

  7. No Gravatar
    Ozma

    Jan 7, 2011 - 03:01:44

    I have a hard time railing against the “Bellydance Police”. I dislike rule-oriented know-it-alls who enjoy using their knowledge, no matter how spotty or complex it is, to squelsh others…but often what I see being called Bellydance police is NOT that (although, in a vendiagram…the two aren’t completely separate).

    I think it’s my background in fine art.  Introductory art history classes (like most history classes) almost always started with the idea of artistic evolution and change through time as not a forward pointing line but as a pendulum that progresses through reacting to and against certain elements. Art doesn’t move forward cleanly, it bashes against ideas, is repelled by them, is pushed by them, and more!

    I think the “Bellydance Police”*serve an essential role in the areas of bellydance that bill themselves to be new, evolved, and purposefully/agressively changing (as well as more “traditional’ “classic’ Mainstream” styles). The historical knowledge, the cultural information, and all that the “Police” bring to the art is, for me, the whetting stone against which new ideas and paths must be honed by.

    Unchallenged artistic growth can be a soft and pathetic thing. I’m not saying that new trends should be crushed, just that the “police”often hold  and bring forth conflicts that must be addressed for new trends to really grown/define themselves by and against.

    As an artist, and not just in dance, I don’t want to be blindly encouraged to do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it. That means nothing. That doesn’t help me grow. I want informed encouragement/nurturing and informed conflict if I am to grow.

    And, bellydance is, for most of us, a cultural import. It has a history different from our own and continues to exist and grow in the countries of origin as well as in its new adopted lands. To change the art without a willingness to learn, respect, and grapple with the conundrum of those parallel cultures and the cultural legacy of the dance is not helping the art either here or the many theirs.

    -Ozma

    *man I hate that term, it smacks of someone who is a hair away from calling them Dance Nazis and always rubs me the wrong way.

  8. No Gravatar
    Rachel-Zoso

    Jan 10, 2011 - 01:01:10

    I teach and preform belly dance and I have gotten a very wide range of oppinion. I have had people who like what I do and people who can’t stand what I do. I have the right to do with belly dance what I want, as does everyone eles. The people who tell you  that you can’t are the ones with the problem. The nay sayer are affraid. They will call you names, tell you that you are incompetent ,lie, manipulate, be mean and hateful. The nay sayer want you to be affraid so that they can feel comfortable and secure about what they do. The more confident and competent the belly dancer, the more open to new ideas and change they will be. The less competent and confident the belly dancer the more control they will want of others and they will do what it takes to get it. Don’t let any one tell you what you can and can not do. You are free to do what you want with belly dance.      

  9. No Gravatar
    Kevin

    Jan 15, 2011 - 07:01:28

    …as a musician I wrestle with similar issues. A bandmate in our algerian-andalouse group once told me we should: “study every source we can, as deeply as we can, and from that state of relative non-ignorance, play what we feel”.

  10. No Gravatar
    Kevin

    Jan 15, 2011 - 08:01:37

    I really like the idea of “relative non-ignorance”:
    it’s something we can achieve fairly easily,
    and yet can always aspire to more of

  11. No Gravatar
    Tahira

    May 20, 2011 - 09:05:54

    The only thing I have to add to everything said above is that it is my experience that those who complain most about “the belly dance police’ are those who either want to do what ever they want under the heading of belly dance or those who honestly don’t know but have judgments about what they are doing and then become defensive when criticized.  Like wise, many of the people who are  “the belly dance police” have deep judgments about what belly dance should be and what their role in the continuation of the art is.
    Many of the arguments which Zorba refers to in this article are really only marginally important.  but they give people things to talk about.  I think that it’s more important to learn the rules, history, etc.  Then selectively choose which to ignore.  And to pass that information on to others so that they can come to understand what the difference between making the choice from ignorance and knowledge.

  12. No Gravatar
    Catherine

    Jan 11, 2012 - 05:01:16

    Anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku describes the generally accepted anthropological view that “ethnic means a group which holds in common genetic, linguistic, and cultural ties, with special emphasis on cultural tradition” (Kealiinohomoku 1970: 39). She goes on to assert that all dance forms are therefore ethnic dance forms by this definition; it is redundant to speak of ethnic dance, as every dance is ethnic. In her 1970 article “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance”, she critics Western dance scholars for not using the term ethnic dance in this objective definition but as a euphemism for out-dated terms such as primitive, savage, pagan, exotic, etc (Kealiinohomoku 1970: 41). In belly dance culture, there exists at times a false separation between art and culture, as these two poles are very much different but closely related features of one idea, that is, human expression. Much like the false binary of classic anthropologists who believed that they had constructed objective “methods” while natives embodied an inherent, timeless “culture”, a lot of the charges of cultural appropriation from non-dancers and purist elitism between belly dancers would lessen if more Tribal Style dancers admitted that what they are involved in creating and performing is ethnic culture as well as art, and if more Raqs Sharqi dancers admitted that they are themselves creating dynamic, interpretive art in an ever-evolving culture.

  13. No Gravatar
    Karen

    Apr 3, 2012 - 03:04:59

    I love this article and have pointed a number of people towards it as I feel it says so much and with such humanity that it shines with wisdom when compared to the often vitriolic ramblings of the supposed ‘purists’. My students explore a range of Oriental and Tribal style movements and are encouraged to assimilate them into their own choreography and improvisation dancing. The different tribal styles we have enjoyed incorporating have ranged through the Domba, Kajira Djoumahna, Fat Chance and a number of smaller groups such as Wild Card and we take from all the things we find suit our styles and without prejudice as to their origins. I know that the classes I’m involved in have lots of fun, we laugh a lot, we consider ourselves as friendly and welcoming and none of us forget that we came to belly dance for ENJOYMENT. I wish that the belly dance trolls would solve whatever is lacking in their own environments and use some of their energy in positive endeavours then perhaps newcomers wouldn’t be put off by encountering this side of the dance.

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Gilded Serpent

MaryEllen Donald