Gilded Serpent presents...

The Ballet-ification of Belly Dance

Horacio Cifuentes and Carolyn Carjaval, 1989

by Sausan
posted November 1, 2011

It’s popping up in Belly dance studios across the globe as a relevant class for Belly dancers.  The latest instructional Belly dance DVDs refer to it heavily, and its movement vocabulary is used in the teaching of Belly dance technique.  It is hailed as the best training for strength, grace, and endurance, but is it appropriate and applicable to what is considered the oldest dance in the world?

Billed as a “modified technique”, purportedly tailored to help Belly dancers increase balance, fluidity, strength and grace, Ballet movement and vocabulary is fast becoming the norm in the teaching curriculum of Belly dance.  I’m concerned. 

When did Ballet become a requisite for Belly dance, and why is it stated that it should be an essential part of a Belly dancer’s daily regimen?

If we compare the two dances in all respects, one is as different from the other as night is to day.  Each one contradicts the other in movement, technique, cultural origins, music interpretation, applicable body type, and performance venue.  Neither looks at all like the other in any aspect, and both come from completely separate backgrounds and time lines.

So, why does one supposedly have to take a class in ballet to be a great Belly dancer?

First, let’s consider the historical and geographical differences of these two dances:

  1. Ballet is said to have emerged in the court culture of the late fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance as a dance interpretation of fencing, while in contrast, Belly dance has been around since the birth of civilization, or at least since the time of the pharaohs — before the Christian era, anyway, and is said to have been centered around issues of human fertility. 
  2. Fencing, from which Ballet was patterned, is a family of combat sports using bladed weapons.  This connotes fights, battles, war and even death.  Belly dance is a cultural expression of the of the Middle East and is danced initially without performance or stage properties in a celebration of life.
  3. Ballet was further developed in the French court from the time of Louis XIV in the 17th century.  Belly dance was further made popular in the streets of Cairo and later appeared as performances by women in Egyptian casinos and nightclubs; most notably in those of Chafica Al Cobtiya and Badia El Masabni, during mid 19th through the early 20th centuries. 

SausanOK, I’ll admit it…  I’m not an authority on Ballet, and I’ve never studied it; and there is a clear reason why I never did.  I saw it as rigid, strict, and constrained; a dance that twisted one’s body into unnatural positions, demanded hours of daily disciplinary and arduous stretching, and that commanded a strict diet.  The turnout of feet from the day-to-day leg exercises comprised of the five basic positions and the resulting deformity of them after years of dancing en pointe seemed too torturous and made no sense to me.  My interests leaned more toward the indigenous celebratory cultural forms of ethnic dance, which is why I chose Belly dance as my ultimate form of dance study.

Belly dance is not Ballet.  Belly dance is fluid, pliable, seamless — always moving, and “gushy”.  Moreover, it is an ethnic and cultural form of expression born out of the day-to-day life celebrations of Middle Eastern people. 

It embraces the young and the old, the slender to zaftig, and everything in between.  It does not discriminate, except perhaps, in hire-for-pay public performances.  Except for hire-for-pay public performances, Ballet is quite the opposite.  So, why are we Belly dance instructors applying Ballet terms and labels on Belly dance and introducing a Western concept into this ancient dance form?

I’m going to take this idea a step further.  Call me “politically incorrect” if you wish, but according to history, Ballet was made popular by a male in a royal European court.  On the other hand, Belly dance (considered primarily to be a female dance and made popular as such in Cairo during the Golden Age of Egypt) did not come out of a royal court but rather from village and city homes and streets of its laypeople — another notable difference worthy of consideration.  Why can’t we just leave the dance alone?  The only thing associated with it in the way of royal courts is with the late King Farouq who enjoyed watching these lovely dancers while frequenting the nightclubs during his reign.  Aida Nour 1991 by Lynette

Why must we infuse this already rich and beautiful dance form with yet another Western influence like Ballet?  Haven’t we done enough to it already?  We have American Tribal Style, Gothic Industrial Style, Tribal Fusion Style, American Modern Style, American Restaurant style, Classic American style, Gypsy style, Goddess or Spiritual style, Fitness style, Hawaiian Fusion style, Poi Ball style, Fire-Eating style, and the, seemingly, more “culturally oriented” Lebanese, Turkish, and Bollywood styles. 

Additionally now, Ballet style?  What new fad style will be next?  Hiphop style?  Breakdance style?  Mashed-Potato style?  Funky Chicken style?  Lindy Hop style?  Futuristic Martian style?

Perhaps (and this is an extreme speculative long-shot) in some remote, small way, it might have been that Belly dance was the inspiration and actual impetus for Ballet (food for thought!). Perhaps it was a deliberate step (no pun intended) to evolve in the opposite direction of Belly dance movement and expression, for indeed, Belly dance is widely believed to be the first dance.  If you think about it as it relates to historical context, male is to female as Ballet is to Belly dance.  Or, perhaps, it’s just that we in the West feel the need to take what we’ve discovered from another culture and make it our own, infusing it with our contemporary cultural experience and reinventing it numerous times to suit our needs for subsequent marketability when it really doesn’t belong to our western culture in the first place!

Najia in 1990

We might (with all due respect) put the initial charge for the Ballet-ification of Belly dance on world-renown Egyptian master dance teacher, Mahmoud Reda, who opened his dance school in the mid-twentieth century and taught his version of “ethnic dance” to the populous along with his knowledge and experience of Ballet technique.  After all, his dance idols were Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire of whom it is said he wanted to emulate rather than Chafica Al Coptiya or Badia Al Masabni.  However, before the teaching influences of Mahmoud Reda, great dancers like Chafica Al Coptiya, and Badia Al Masabni, as well as Taheyia Karioka, Badawiya Moustafa, and so many others danced their hearts out to the acclaim of their eclectic fan base and without any real formal Ballet training.  Perhaps it’s because of the lack of this Ballet training that allowed their expression to ring true in their dance, unencumbered by Ballet technique, that carved a place for them in the historical dance annals of Egypt.  Introduce Ballet technique via a world-renown and highly revered Egyptian-born dance master like Mahmoud Reda (again, with all due respect given) and all previous accepted points of view suddenly change.

Ballet has no place in Belly dance, either in vocabulary or dance technique

Ballet may be touted as a bona fide exercise to increase balance, fluidity, strength and grace, but Belly dance does exactly that and more in its own unique way!  Not only does Belly dance strengthen muscles, teach grace and fluidity, and produce stamina and endurance, it also opens the door to another world — to the history, culture, and expression of the country from which the dance evolved centuries before ballet was ever invented.  It teaches us other forms of music with percussion rhythms far more complex than our own.  It introduces us to another way of thinking and of moving.  It opens our minds and allows us to experience another culture with expressions altogether different from our own.  Why would we want to contaminate that with Ballet?

Belly dance does not need to be “improved” or “legitimized” with an infusion of Ballet, it is already a perfect dance by itself. 

Instead, it needs to be studied without the comparison or infusion of other dance types such as Ballet, without Western or European cultural influences, and without the Western or European discrimination or experience.  It has its own exclusive vocabulary, its own exclusive technique, and it’s own particular movements. 

Belly dance is unique.  Pair it with Ballet, and you have another form of Belly dance fusion imposed by the West in its unending quest to making something “better”, lacking the understanding of the underlying nature of it, and the unwillingness to study it completely and apart from any other form of dance, and the apparent inability to experience it as its own unique expressive dance entity.  In the U.S.A., as well as the European and Western countries, there’s just too much of that — a style called “Belly Dance Fusion”.  Why not study the dance form itself and only by itself, along with all that it has to offer in the way of its elements like the music, culture, and artists? 

Keeping the dance true to its form….  Now, that’s something worth considering!

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