Breaking Down Cultural Appropriation Myths
by Shema/ EmmaLucy Cole
posted December 18, 2011
Paper originally given as part of the Panel discussion “Globalization and the Cultural Appropriation of Bellydance” at MassRaqs 2011.
In this article, a paper originally presented at MassRaqs 2011, Shema (EmmaLucy Cole) discusses cultural appropriation with respect to two articles authored by the late scholar Edward Said. Exploring the meaning of the term “culture,” she notes that Westerners are particularly prone to placing value judgments on what should, and should not exist in Arab dance arts “and this is where imperialism exists.”
Discussing Said’s views of the contrast between ballet and the Eastern dance as represented by Tahia Carioca, Shema notes that the author saw “no relation between Western dance forms, and ‘Eastern’ belly dance or even in the ability of artists from other cultures to appropriate the dance form.”
Shema does not intend her work to be the last word on the subject of cultural appropriation. “I do not expect to provide answers,” she writes, “but instead to lay out and consider some of the difficulties.”
“Cultural Appropriation” has been loosely defined as the use of a group’s culture in ways that they do not approve of’. 1
But what is “culture,” and how (if at all) have we appropriated it? Who is the implied speaker here, and what makes us believe that there is disapproval being voiced?
I intend to explore this concept in relation to two particular texts which I came across recently, written by Edward Said, the author of "Orientalism", a revolutionary thesis which exposed the West’s relationship to the “Orient.” Entitled “Homage to a belly dancer” and “Farewell to Tahia,” they both focus on the author’s evident awe for Tahia Carioca and expose some very interesting revelations about Said’s personal opinions on both the dance, and the woman. I do not expect to provide answers but instead to lay out and consider some of the difficulties. I should also point out that I am not a dance ethnologist, but a literary and cultural researcher; the statements herein are simply my exploration of this subject and I welcome comments and further discussion. Although the use of the word “bellydance” is itself problematic, I have chosen to retain it for the purposes of this article, since the title of the original panel included it (although I will discuss this later in the paper) and when I refer to “Western” ideologies, I am predominantly referring to British viewpoints, but many of these are of course applicable to America and Europe also.
What is culture then and why is an understanding of it relevant to our discussion of twenty-first century bellydance? “Culture” is used to refer to any number of elements of how a group of people live their lives. It may include their arts, laws, customs, knowledge, beliefs, capabilities or habits. It is a “generic concept” which when used in theoretical discussion essentially becomes meaningless due to its impractical catch-all nature.2 In his book entitled Cultural Imperialism, John Tomlinson says that:
“What we need to understand is not what culture is, but how people use the term in contemporary discourses.” 3
In Western bellydance communities, we speak in terms of dance, but of course, music, language, dialect, fashion, politics, religion, magic, and many relics of colonialism are not only to be found within this but are what holds the dance together- its “glue,” as it were.
Problems often arise because Western thought processes have placed a judgment on how life – and, thus, “culture”- is lived and this is where imperialism exists–in the West’s presiding over what should, or should not, exist within an Arabic art.
When non-Arab dancers choose not to comprehend the language, politics and lifestyle differences which are inherent in the dance, they are inevitably placing their own viewpoint onto not only the dance produced outside of the countries of origin, but also the dance produced within those countries themselves.
There is an historical and contemporary interplay between both culture and economics in the process of domination and consequent cultural appropriation. In our own dance community, is our use of foreign cultures enabling economic imperialism, or is economic imperialism itself being used to underpin the impressing of our own culture onto that of a subjugated group?
By this I mean that it is possible that by using an “Oriental” (and I use that term deliberately), or perhaps “Orientalised” art to earn money, our distinctive Western values are directly altering the dance, despite often being geographically and culturally removed.
So, is the motivation here financial, or cultural? As dancers, do we consider enough the consequences of portraying a dance as “authentic” when it has in many ways been shaped by our own Western values, habits and cultures? As Marilyn Adler Papayanis says:
“I have been forced to confront my own careless appropriations, my own cultural thefts: committing acts of cultural voyeurism, exploiting the Other’s difference to enhance my own desirability.”4
Said’s comments in the two articles claim a distinct difference between the two cultures (and it is interesting to note that he buys into the notion of “bellydance,” using the American Orientalised word despite many years spent theorising against the use of such terms which essentially alienate the original Arabic culture by refusing to use its language):
“Belly-dancing in many ways is the opposite of ballet, its western equivalent as an art form. Ballet is all about elevation, lightness, the defiance of the body’s weight. Eastern dancing as Tahia practiced it shows the dancer planting herself more and more solidly in the earth, digging into it almost, scarcely moving…Tahia’s dancing vertically suggested a sequence of horizontal pleasures, but also paradoxically conveyed the kind of elusiveness and grace that cannot be pinned down on a flat surface…She belonged to the tradition of the alema…that is, a courtesan who was extremely literate as well as lithe and profligate with her bodily charms…You couldn’t take Tahia out of a Cairo night-club, stage, or wedding feast…. She is entirely local, untranslatable, commercially unviable, except in those places…Every culture has its closed off areas, and…Tahia Carioca…was, one of them.”5
Said makes it evident that he sees no relation between Western dance forms, and “Eastern” belly dance or even in the ability of artists from other cultures to appropriate the dance form:
“As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic Arab belly-dancer’s art is not how much but how little the artist moves: only the novices, or the deplorable Greek and American imitators, go in for the appalling wiggling and jumping around that passes for ‘sexiness’ and harem hootchy-kootch.”6
There is a sense of ‘purity’ to his description both of Tahia and the dance, both, in his mind, having been apparently untouched as yet by outside influences; something which he clearly indicates would carry negative connotations. Of course, one cannot avoid the fact that at the time Tahia was dancing, Egyptian Baladi musicians were incorporating Western instruments such as saxophone, accordion and trumpet into their compositions and therefore it is unrealistic of Said to hope that the same was not happening in the dance.7 Toward the end of her life, Said finally met Tahia and even his words here belie a respect bordering on religious awe:
“About 10 years ago I made a special pilgrimage to Cairo to interview and meet her” (my italics).8
Purity of culture is clearly important to Said here; indeed, following his train of thought, without the influence of bellydancers from Western countries, would Tahia’s successors have begun wearing mini-skirts or thongs to perform in?9
However, the point must be made that any hegemonic [dominant] influence requires the consent of the majority, in order to take hold. Which brings us to the question of voice; who is really speaking when it is implied that there is disapproval? And if hegemony requires the majority to consent, then is it a minority who are disapproving and should they be listened to? As Tomlinson suggests, often diasporic nations indulge in “nostalgic cultural imaginings” in order to define themselves and their heritage –they no longer experience the reality of everyday life which they have left behind, and may idealise and simplify their own culture, resulting in the rarefaction of these elements of combined cultural memory.10 Yet, as Karim Nagi comments, on Arab presence in the dance world:
“Many Americans, or non-natives, are participating in a huge industry, for better or for worse…What has happened to our dance because we haven’t represented it? Many positive things; some things that we would not approve of…the cause is our lack of participation.”11
Indeed, there is far more judgment from British women towards bellydance, because it does not fit into our own “culture,” our way of behaving, or what we traditionally perceive of as “art,” yet it is still becoming one of the most popular dance forms, with its classic Orientalist fantasies being confirmed regularly by an ill-informed media. Said states that:
“Tahia seems to me to embody that beyond-the-boundary life for Arabs today. Our history is mostly written by foreigners, visiting scholars, intelligence agents while we do the living, relying on personal and disorganised collective memory, gossip almost…to carry us forward in time.”12
In the course of writing this paper, I have wandered frequently back and forth between being inspired by forward-thinking and talented artists (from both the East and the West) and the urge to just give up completely for fear of perpetuating damaging and Orientalist myths! Yet through researching some of the more significant issues surrounding appropriation, I have definitely grown as an artist and it has effected some changes in my own practice.
The most positive thing which should come out of discussions such as these is the element of education; if we can continue the process of discussion and conversations around the subject, maybe there can be less cultural appropriation and more cultural collaboration.
I end with a quote by Robert Young:
“As an intellectual, an artist, a consumer or producer of culture, you either collude with the aestheticized structure that enforces apartness, or you contest it…”13
‘Shema’s attendance at MassRaqs was supported by The University of Bristol Graduate School and Alumni Foundation’
- 1-Meiver De La Cruz – from her preliminary notes for the Panel Discussion ‘Globalization and the Cultural Appropriation of Bellydance’ at MassRaqs 2011
- 2-John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (London, Pinter Publishers, 1991), pp. 2-3. Tomlinson is quoting Mattelart and his exploration of how to approach the ‘problem’ of imperialism and thus ‘cultural imperialism’. Tomlinson goes on to state that in his own discussion, he will avoid using one single definition (since this does not allow a full understanding of the subject) but will instead use the concept of cultural imperialism ‘which must be assembled out of its discourse’.
- 3-Ibid, p. 5.
- 4-Marilyn Adler Papayanis, Writing in the Margins: The Ethics of Expatriation from Lawrence to Ondaatje (Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), p. ix.
- 5-Edward Said, Farewell to Tahia at Al Ahram Weekly Online accessed 22.6.11
- 6-Edward Said, Homage to a Belly-Dancer at http//:www.lrb.co.uk accessed 22.6.11
- 7-More information on the history of Baladi music, including how the presence of British, French and American military bands in Cairo influenced the development of Egyptian music, can be found in the articles by Guy Schalom (with Sheikh Taha) at www.guyschalom.com
- 8-Edward Said Farewell to Tahia at Al Ahram Weekly Online accessed 22.6.11
- 9-Here I am referring to Dina’s infamous costume (of around 2009) which featured a thong clearly visible above the top of her skirt, and the numerous dancers working currently in Egypt who dance in high heels and mini-skirts.
- 10-Robert J C Young, A Very Short Introduction: Postcolonialism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 63
- 11-Karim Nagi Lauren of Arabia:Lecture by Karim Nagi accessed 3.9.11
- 12-Edward Said Farewell to Tahia at Al Ahram Weekly Online accessed 22.6.11
- 13-Robert J C Young, A Very Short Introduction: Postcolonialism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 58.
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