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Is Bellydance on a Downward Spiral?

Ask Yasmina #18

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by Yasmina Ramzy
posted April 17, 2012

Usually I take questions from readers and try to give some kind of comprehensive answer. This time the question is from me to the universe or perhaps it is a revelation I have come to realize recently that has shocked me to the core.

Is the presentation of Bellydance on a downward spiral after the years of so many trying to lift it up?

The latest full scale Arabesque Dance Company production called JAMRA just finished a few weeks ago. As all of our annual productions, there were 7 performances in a prestigious theatre of 450 seats sponsored by an arts centre and two arts councils. Arabesque consists of 17 male and female dancers and 11 musicians and vocalists.

When compiling the information for the programme, some of the dance artists in the company asked us not to use their real name for fear of complications with their main employment.

These are dance artists who dedicate between 10-20 hours a week to rehearsal and practice with Arabesque. They are serious artists who have many years of training under their belts. Some are instructors as well. They are fearful that they may be found out – the horrible truth exposed that they are a Bellydancer.

The last time I heard anyone fearful of admitting they were a Bellydancer was in the late 80s and early 90s. Those were days when we began to take great care to educate our audiences; to set examples that Bellydance was high art, not striptease; that Bellydancers did not dance on tables or take money in their bra strap or sit with customers after their performance. Yes, it often seemed like an uphill battle but progress was always being made. It is what impelled me to get up in the morning and what brings the 35 members of Arabesque together to work so hard. If members of my own company cannot admit publicly that they Bellydance – including myself on occasion – how can I complain when an arts council does not give me a grant?

After asking around, I found that this Bellydance shame which I thought was long gone was actually a growing trend. Does this mean my last 30 years of diligent efforts of raising awareness was for naught? Should all those dancers around the world who have worked so hard to establish Bellydance as art give up if the community is making a U-turn? Is this just a short bad phase? I am looking for feedback. Is it my imagination or is Bellydance becoming more sexualized and more commercialized? Are dancers actually allowing someone to stick dollar bills in their bra strap? Is it the economy? Really?

This is my 18th column for Gilded Serpent and pretty much every previous column offers examples of how one can demand respect and feel pride in Bellydancing as well as the benefits in rebound and ripple effect that this offers for all communities. I offered these examples because the readers asked the questions. What is the point if a handful of Bellydancers are constantly sabotaging the earnest efforts of those who respect themselves and the art? Is it possible to organize and fight this growing trend?

At the first International Bellydance Conference of Canada, Randa Kamel (Egypt) spoke on one of the panels and was asked about the stigmatization of Bellydance in Egypt. She said it was sad because there is a long lineage of dancers who have loved and respected the art form – from Samia Gamal to Sohair Zaki to herself. But unfortunately, there are a few who ruin it for everyone by acting immodest and disrespectful of themselves and the art.

Very soon will be the last conference, this May 2012. The first one was in 2007 inspired by the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in California in 2000. The main feature of the International Bellydance Conference of Canada which made it stand out amongst other Bellydance festivals and events was the focus on highly researched lectures concerning history and socio-political impact as well as panel discussions and debates. Issues were raised such as Commercial Bellydance vs. Women’s Empowerment, Ethics and Conduct, Men in Bellydance, Globalization of Bellydance, Feminist Approaches to Bellydance, Body Image in Bellydance, Cultural Appropriation; Exploiting or Honouring, Tribal Dance Evolution, Art vs. Commercialism, Teaching Standards and so on. Each of these discussions went overtime with the vibrant energy of a room of 150 Bellydancers who really cared about the issues and the future of our art form.

I have noticed that more and more festivals these days include similar type discussions and lectures by scholars. This is very encouraging.

Perhaps things are getting better but there is an equal negative influence that holds onto the inertia of old ways of thinking. Perhaps it is a parallel struggle to women’s plight in general. Feminism has created laws that have allowed women to seek new roles in power and wealth and yet still, basic attitudes have not really changed concerning men’s attitudes towards women and women’s attitudes towards themselves. Perhaps Bellydance is the poster child for many things society needs to examine, work on and dig deep into in order to understand the root causes of its struggles.

The issue could be described in the chicken and egg analogy. Which is first (or last)? Feminine sensuality and Bellydance viewed as negative and degrading or Bellydancers cheapening and selling out their feminine sensuality? At the end of the day, I believe Bellydance is a great vehicle to facilitate change in the hearts of those who dance and those that view it. Bellydance offers an opportunity to claim feminine sensuality as positive, sacred and healing, akin to most art. Please spread the word. The next time you see a dancer in Egypt or elsewhere degrading the art form, perhaps you could offer her/him a better way to present themselves. I am pretty sure I cannot give up just yet.

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