The Americanization of Arab Dance in America
by Karim Nagi
posted September 6, 2011
The lecture that appears in this video addresses the overwhelming interest and active endeavoring of non-Arabs in the field and profession of Arab dance in America. Although rarely called Arab dance by these American practitioners, the material, style, and aesthetics mostly originate in the Arabic speaking countries of Egypt and Lebanon, with supplemental presentations from North Africa and the Gulf. The American practitioners of this dance outnumber the Arab practitioners by no less than 100 to 1.
The goal of this lecture is to assess the resulting status of Arab dance in America, based on its lack of native representation.
Like in the field of media, often Arabs feel misrepresented. Arabs are constantly complaining, if not protesting the way they are depicted and rendered in both news and creative media. For news media, we find a massive preoccupation with the tragic, war and terror oriented focus, always highlighting Arab’s aggression and conflict. In creative media (like film and TV) Arabs are depicted as villains and depraved antagonists (Jack Shaheen, "Reel Bad Arabs" documentary). However it can be argued that it is the lack of presence of Arabs in the journalist, directorial and productive media professions that allows this imbalance. When we fail to represent ourselves, we are then resigned to accept representation by others.
In the field of Arab Dance in America, for better or for worse, this Arab art is represented primarily by non-Arabs. Because of the absence of Arabs in the profession, the non-Arabs are left with the task. These non-Arabs find motivation in agendas and goals that suit them, and help propel their own concepts, and careers. Luckily for the Arabs, there is no outright malice or defamation in the world of dance, as there is often in the world of media. The non-Arab practitioners are more interested in the effects and benefits of the art form, and are not engaged in order to express discontent with Arab culture. However, because they are the most visible, their opinion and concepts receive more attention than the Arab view.
You can find many effects from the American domination of this dance. There are undesirable effects, such as de-ethnicization, and the removal of cultural and traditional traits in favor of rampant fantasy. There are also positive effects, such as the attempts at codification, and the creation of communities and safe venues to perform. The goal of this lecture is neither to condemn nor praise. My goal is to weigh the effect of the Arab absence in this dance’s proliferation.
I use the concept of "Lauren of Arabia" as an obvious homage and reference to T.E. Lawrence. His popularly remembered "Lawrence of Arabia" is a subjective account of a western man who actively studied, absorbed himself in, militarily battled on behalf of, and even advocated Arab culture.
To many he was indistinguishable from those he advocated. Yet he was clearly an ethnic outsider who’s primary nationality, education, and political agenda, was not synonymous with those he fought for.
Such is the case with the non-Arab who finds herself being the spokes-dancer for a culture. Like many spokespeople, their degree of knowledge and their authentic affiliation for the product or cause, varies ad-infinitum. So this lecture will attempt to evaluate the result on the Art form, based on the balance between the non-Arabs who actively represent, and the Arabs who are actively absent.
Ready for more?
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