Gilded Serpent presents...

Kajira & Chuck Interviews

Cultural Appropriation & Artistic Freedom

Videos Interviews by Lynette Harris
posted October 14, 2012
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Kajira and her husband, Chuck, are well-known individuals in our community. Kajira started the first festival for tribal style belly dance called "Tribal Fest". She also wrote a book called "Tribal Bible". We have a review of this book by Shelley "Yasmela" Muzzy here. One of the common issues that the community has had with Kajira’s philosophy and with tribal dance in general is with the issue of cultural appropriation. In this series of videos we discuss different issues and how Kajira feels about them. This is the passage from her book that I asked her to read on camera, and then we discussed different points.

"Remember that this is a dance of OURS. Our very own American Style Bellydance! Even though this style is not the first American style of bellydance, this is perhaps the first one that is unapologetic about that fact. We celebrate this fact. We love this aspect of our dance! This makes it a form that we can relate to in every way as American people. We don’t have to adopt or support another culture’s moral or religious standards if they are not comfortable for us personally. We don’t have to buy into any political agenda. We don’t have to feel bad because we’re not of Mediterranean descent, olive skinned, or don’t speak another language. We don’t need to feel as if we should hide our tattoos or body art for fear of offending someone else. We can choose our reasons for dancing and our venues and occasions. In short, we get to make up the rules as we go."

The first video here is an introduction to what Kajira and Chuck are doing now and their recent move back from Maui. The next videos will begin the discussion. Please add your thoughts and questions below in the comments section. It maybe helpful to reference which video or even the time stampof the video you are discussing in your comment.

Part 2: We begin our discussion by reading the above quote and discussing using the term belly dance and American Tribal Style. Kajira describes being ostracized because of her tattoos and the artistic freedom of not having to be tied to Middle Eastern traditions.

Part 3: Not MED, Misappropriation of the Rom culture, Ostracizing of Tribal. Find reference in Tribal Bible for time stamp 2:30. We found it- Page 215 at the top, "The parallels between the struggle of the Roma and that of bellydancers is undeniable.  Both groups are fighting to gain respect and move away from social prejudice." This point is addressed in the review of the book here.

Part 4: The Rise of Tribal Fusion. New terms- Spontaneous Group Improvisation, International or Improvisation Tribal Style. "Tribal Fest chronicles the rise of Tribal Fusion." Tribaret. No codification in our dances. Big difference betweem Tribal Fusion and Cabaret– Isolations, torso, arm movements. Kajira became certified in Rachel Brice’s format. ATS is a subset of Spontanteous Group Improv.

Part 5: Using the Term “Tribal”, The Modern Primitive Movement. Artists will fuse anything which is ok. What if we said “American Style Flamenco”? Morocco made this name up. Middle Eastern people get a feeling of “home” when they see tribal style. This is because we use authentic textiles and don’t use Hollywood fantasy. Doesn’t American Tribal sound like Native American? Modern Primitive Movement included tattoos, piercings, colored hair, alternative lifestyles. The hippy movement started the look of anything exotic being cool. Salimpour…

Part 6: Creating a Separate Community, Burlesque?
Kajira believes that the Tribal community is bigger and more successful than the rest of the belly dance community. “We wish we could be accepted as a sister dancer form… As Artemis said, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to look.” Burlesque is a separate art form.

Part 7: Belly Dance and Islam

Coming soon!


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  1. Terry

    Oct 14, 2012 - 11:10:55

    Ostracized…hmmm, I’d imagine the Arab community might not approve, maybe the GP? The dance community? Maybe, I’m so removed, but I always thought Kajira was well received amongst her peers And dance community at large.  Cultural misappropriation….she calls it ATS…American! We are a melting pot! Viva la difference!
    As for the dancers who aren’t performing ATS style….I don’t hear any apologies, I don’t know any that have converted to Islam, become ultra conservative, or anti-Israel. 
    These are general statements to the quotes, not sure I have anything of value to  add that hasn’t been said before. (At least in the last 25 plus years)that I’ve been listening.
    i think through hard work and a shrewd business acumen, Kajira has created a wonderful community that brings people to dance, whether it’s considered “authentic” or not.  And that in itself is a good thing.

  2. Anthea Kawakib

    Oct 15, 2012 - 06:10:06

    We can’t know what an individual’s experience has been; in the beginning it may well have been very “black and white” between cabaret style dancers and the others.
    I remember taking a workshop with an American dancer just back from dancing in Egypt, and how she talked about the, shall we say, “odd” bellydancers in California who had tattoos, and even did facial markings – this was in the ’80s. I got the feeling there was a definite clash of sensibilities “out there” on the West Coast (I’m in VA).

  3. Monica B.

    Oct 18, 2012 - 07:10:18

    Interesting topics. Thanks Lynette and GS for broaching them. I have had some reactions (from a US perspective, as that’s what I’ve got) that can hopefully foster more conversation.
    I am troubled at the implication that dancers who are interested in more traditional styles are somehow repressing a part of themselves, or feeling bad or guilty for not being ‘enough’ of something they could never achieve, or that we are are limited in our artistic expression. As a 20+ year dancer who is interested in more traditional styles, I have found that learning, studying, researching, and interpreting dances from what is really the subculture of another culture is an ongoing journey of seemingly unlimited breadth and depth. Importantly, we are also talking about cultures that are often misunderstood at best, and that are lumped together and demonized (and bombed…) at worst. In my loftier moments, I have felt it was one of the most punk rock things to do (that’s coming from the perspective of my own teenage counterculture distant past). Some of the things I heard in the video imply that there is one monolithic voice and viewpoint in the (huge!) region with the political (not really geographically meaningful) label ‘the Middle East’, which is absurd, and does us no good as artists who are inspired by dance and music from that vast and varied area (whatever our own artistic output may eventually be).
    I really appreciate and agree with Kajira’s outspokenness on the use of the word Rom vs. the use of the word Gypsy, and of the problematic aspects of belly dancers using the concept of Roman/Dom/Gypsy/etc. people as constructed fantasy characters. I found myself wishing she could extend the same courtesy to Oriental dance from Egypt and Turkey, as dances that developed in real places, with real people, and that said people still have ownership over and a voice in, albeit often complicated and complex ones. This may hit the largest area of disagreement I see between some of us belly dance folks–that the term ‘belly dance’ has no connection to that real place and those real people, especially if you throw an adjective in front of it. I disagree–I think people think of another place when they hear ‘belly dance’. In some cases it might be the wrong place (‘ooh, is that Indian dance?!’), but it is always ‘other’. In some cases people from that other place may not appreciate being represented by belly dance (as opposed to folks getting a fuller picture of it all). But I really think it is an easy way out to disassociate it from that real place and those real people and a real history, and to work through the sometimes painful complexities doing another cultures dances can bring. It’s really hard. When I see it turned away from as ‘it’s ours and it’s our term and therefore we can do whatever we want’–even when we take Arabic or Arabic sounding stage names–I get an image of someone with her fingers in her ears, eyes closed, and saying ‘nyah nyah nyah’. 
    Finally, in my opinion the term ‘ethnic police’ needs to be taken out of the discussion once and for all, assuming people actually want a discussion with other dancers and don’t want to portray the ears/eyes/’nyah nyah nyah’ image above. It is rudely  dismissive of folks who have chosen a different path that connects movement, music, and culture with their dance studies and performances. Coming from folks who run a festival that allows everything in it but raqs sharqi, it could be read as aggressive. I am willing to take it as a thoughtless tongue in cheek phrase, but would really just like to see it go away in our dancer discussions.

  4. Monica B.

    Oct 18, 2012 - 08:10:24

    P.S. The above is based on watching parts 1 through 3 only (so far!).

  5. Zumarrad

    Oct 18, 2012 - 08:10:55

    I agree so wholeheartedly with Monica regarding the nasty “ethnic police” title. It – much like banning all oriental dance/music from your festival for 10 years, correct me if I am wrong – doesn’t help foster “sisterhood” of any kind.

    I also agree that tribal is bigger and more popular than ME styles of bellydance. It’s as mainstream as Hot Topic and tattoos, and cleverly marketed. Tribal dances have so little emphasis on personal expression – perhaps it was different in the old days? – and so much focus on dancing identically in a group, and it is very easy to buy in to the aesthetic and groupthink. I do understand its popularity on that score.

    Those of us who do stick with the unpopular “traditional” styles are, I guess, not part of the fashionable herd, but that’s OK to me.

  6. Kamala Almanzar

    Oct 18, 2012 - 09:10:39

    Just want to preface that I enjoy & have presented many styles of dance at events. Question: Should an event including a majority tribal & fusion pieces be labeled “Middle Eastern Dance”, or should the event be changed to say the words “Belly Dance” rather than ME dance? That came to mind during video #3

  7. Shelley Muzzy

    Oct 20, 2012 - 03:10:29

    I don’t know why listening to Kajira is akin to fingernails on a blackboard, but when I first did a review of the Tribal Bible, I noted that she compared the ostracizing of the Tribal community by the majority (at that time) of the cabaret or oriental belly dance community to the ostracizing of the Rom…pretentious statement at best, and disturbingly ignorant and it still rankles me. Its in there and if you need the page number I can find it…again. That said, the tables have turned according to Kajira and now Tribal Style Belly Dance, or whatever the name de jour is, is more popular than belly dance. I tend to agree with Monica B about Kajira’s claim to “sisterhood”. Let’s all just get along…There is something disturbingly smug about Kajira’s attitude that leads to the above stated fingernail thing. The sisterhood thing only applies if you are in the “in” crowd…is that a clique? a cult? I don’t know if at my advanced age I want to put the energy into figuring it out. Tribal style is easily accessible, requires little real technical skill, and has great costumes, so they win! The rest of us will keep slogging along, learning to honor the cultures that birthed the dance we love, trying to learn more, be better and to use and understand the actual music that is so integral to it’s performance. The popular girls will continue to move in other directions, and that’s okay. It isn’t belly dance and it never will be and that’s just fine. Most of us who are belly dancers or raqs sharqi performers are used to explaining ourselves. It’s inconvenient, but it comes with the territory. Kajira and Co. can continue to be different, just like everybody else.

  8. Terry

    Oct 20, 2012 - 05:10:31

    Hmmm….that last  opening statement would have gotten you thrown off the debate team!!! It didn’t sound constructive to this conversation, discussion or debate.  After watching all the videos, I was trying to understand the motivation behind this presentation. Is Kajira being asked to defend her statements and book? Lynette are you challenging her ideas on behalf of the non tribal dancers, whatever we call ourselves?  This discussion I has given me a déjà vu of the old “beads versus coins” sentiment of 70’s & 80’s Bay Area dance scene.  Is this a continuum of that propaganda?
    Kajira, some of the statements felt polarizing to me. I’m curious did you experience “ostracization” from the dance community at large, or the clubs & restaurants you & your community were trying to work at? Or is this disdain perpetuated by a underlying agreement or understanding shared by the tribal community without actual personal experience? Heresay, propaganda?
    if this in fact a discussion, tribal dancers, where are you?  If this is a debate, I’d like to hear some response from the interviewer and interviewee. Or is this a tool for the webzine, author of the book and all the participants to get some air time? Ooh, now I’m sounding snarky huh Shelly?
    One note about the economic success of the tribal cottage industry,  which took its model from Rakkasah, as many festivals have; I considered going to a workshop and the price alone was a deterrent. Trible  or oriental, even if it was the Queen of Sheba teaching…not paying that much.  I haven’t even paid that much to take from Mona Said or Randa!
    Shelly, advanced age or not…the energy!!! Trying to figure it out! Matter of fact, I’m in the middle of making a dance now….I’m outta here.


  9. Chuck Lehnhard

    Oct 23, 2012 - 07:10:52

    …… Tribal style is easily accessible, requires little real technical skill, and has great costumes, so they win!…….
    really? OMG! I’m going to be real good here and NOT re-post this anywhere.

  10. Monica B.

    Oct 23, 2012 - 10:10:05

    I personally very strongly disagree with the ‘tribal style requires little technical skill’ statement, but am also disappointed to see it the only thing reacted to. There is a lot here to talk about! Perhaps there is such an impasse that substantial discussion is not going to lead anywhere? Maybe the terminology conversation has been done one too many times?
    Should dances that develop and morph into their own highly codified and internationally taught style(s) have a different name? Is an adjective or extra descriptor enough in cases where new developments give occasional lip service to source cultures, and often purposely distance their work and selves from the music, movement, culture, and styles of the source dances?  Why is even suggesting that a different name might serve both/all styles better seen as disrespect to or dislike of the newer styles?
    I also think it would be interesting to examine how using ‘new’ with dance styles is often seen as also being a natural step in its development, or more advanced, or a natural next step that everyone needs to accept or risk being ridiculed or seen as just not getting it. That can add a dynamic to the discussion that can really close off a lot of interesting and important voices, and can serve to fossilize the work of folks who are not grandly attempting to create new styles, but to work within already codified forms (albeit messy living ones, always a challenge).
    That’s the stuff that’s more interesting to me, anyway.

  11. Shelley Muzzy (Yasmela)

    Oct 25, 2012 - 11:10:19

    Monica, on the whole I tend to agree with you. forgive me for taking a “shot”. Low blow and not helpful.

  12. Barbara Grant

    Oct 25, 2012 - 01:10:03

    I was not disturbed by anything Shelley wrote; and I wasn’t disturbed, either, by anything Kajira said. I guess that’s because during the past several years, while witnessing and participating in these discussions on GS, I’ve come to the conclusion that what many call “belly dance” (originating, in my view, from the Middle East) is sufficiently different from what is called “tribal dance” that I now think of the two art forms as separate and distinct.
    The only thing that does perturb me (and it happens on occasion) is to see a “made in America” dance art form erroneously passed off as “ethnic Egyptian” to a public who does not know the difference. Fortunately, we have so many good dancers and dance/ethnic researchers in this community that it doesn’t happen too often.

  13. Barbara Grant

    Oct 26, 2012 - 03:10:02

    Because this discussion generated significant commentary, I reviewed the Kajira/Chuck interview again (through Part 6). As a dancer who is not tribal, and has no intention of becoming so, I still found nothing in the interview to become upset about. That’s just me: I realize that others have different opinions and I respect them.

    I’d make two additional points. First, I’d suggest that structuring Tribal Fest without anything Oriental has logic to it. If the goal is to develop a new/alternative dance form, that form will not be well-nurtured while imposing the strictures from the prevailing (at that time) art. It appears to me that the tribal form grew and expanded by this decision.

    Second, I’d argue that the concept of “sisterhood in dance” is way overrated. That’s because I’ve seen instances of high negativity and backbiting even within my own Middle Eastern cabaret art form. If one is perceived as undercutting the “going rates” (in a small-to-medium sized town, for example) for nightclub performances or private parties, one might be well advised to put one’s flak jacket or helmet on. No “sisterhood” there, and I’m not exactly sure why this concept continues to be promoted.

    To conclude: Thank you, Lynette, Kajira, Chuck, and everyone who posted for a very interesting discussion, which I hope will continue.

  14. Adr

    Nov 1, 2012 - 04:11:47

    As someone who enjoys both tribal and ME styles with intensity, I’m finding myself becoming more disillusioned with tribal and those involved with it for several reasons. While ATS is an American invention, to say that it looks more authentic, as Kajira states, than cabaret styles seems wrong, as ATS garb (which is lovely and I enjoy dancing in) is a mishmash of things that look nothing (all together) like the outfits worn by the various influences they cite. It is an amalgamation (a very beautiful one) and to pass it off as anything else seems wrong in my opinion. 

    Another issue I took with her statements was the idea that “all fusion is ok, artists will do as they like” and so on. Things are really not that simple, and even artists have a responsibility to treat the things they are using with respect and knowledge. While cabaret dancers are also guilty of this, tribal dancers seem to be taking many influences without (what one would consider) proper research and respect. To blanket statement approval for this seems unwise. 

    Even the Modern Primitive movement which Kajira mentions is problematic because it also appropriates from many indigenous cultures. To begin, referring to people as ‘primitives’ who are from a differing tradition is condescending. It just shouldn’t be done. Additionally, I just don’t understand how doing something for how ‘exotic’ or ‘cool’ it is seems justifiable when the peoples the ‘exotic’ thing comes from are discriminated against, killed, taken off their land, etc. Even the name tribal is problematic for this same exact reason, which is why I prefer term fusion by itself. 

    Kajira seems like a lovely woman and certainly should be thanked for her contributions to dance, but her apparent blanket approval of cultural appropriation  is very disappointing.

  15. Terri W

    Jul 2, 2013 - 12:07:47

       This is very much the problem with this art form, be it, Cabaret, Tribaret, Oriental, Fusion, ATS, ITA, the list goes on and on. Technical skill is a challenge in all forms of dance inspired by dances of the Middle East. How many of us, tribal or oriental, have slogged through shows where the real intent was to provide an opportunity for performance regardless of skill. How many of us have alternated between being amazed and appalled at any given show, all based on skill or the lack thereof?
      How many times have we supported another dancer who simply wanted to share? Even when it was obvious that skill was not that dancers forte, but that his or her passion for the dance was unmistakeable? How many times have you seen a very technically skilled dancer who appeared bored or arrogant towards the audience?
      Many dancers work very hard at their craft, and demand more of themselves in regards to what they want to represent. Many want to just get out there and shake it. This is a human trait and is not limited to dance. Art, writing, sports, whatever the pursuit, there will always be differences in how important technique, innovation and tradition are to individual artists in their chosen field.
      Please understand, I am not suggesting that we should not work hard at what we do, nor am I suggesting there is no place for varying skill levels to be represented. As a matter of fact, I believe juried shows vs. community events, as well as student recitals are just the way to educate the public at large.I agree with Kajira that Tribal reminds people of authenticity, I believe because it looks earthy strong and real.
     issues that arise from a dancers lack or abundance of skill has never been limited to any one type of dance. Interpretive, Modern, Ballet, Jazz or Belly Dance,people often allow their desire to perform run ahead of their ability to do so. I know this was true for me as a baby dancer. It was seeing myself in the context of others that helped me grow in my performance skills.
      I will say however, that I also (and I know you have too, don’t deny it) been disappointed and somewhat disillusioned when Dancers (Again, Tribal and Cabaret) put on a tribal or ethnic costume and perform a complete choreography. This started happening after Kajira’s festival grew so large and became a force to be reckoned with. Folks wanted a part of it, even when their previous reactions towards Tribal had been disdain and scorn. Then of course being human, Tribal dancers began to display their own special brand of haughty behavior, forgetting that most of us simply want to connect to ancient forms of movement.
      What this conversation is lacking thus far is the reminder that it all requires skill, dedication, positive role modeling and an acceptance of our differences. All this adversarial rhetoric is getting us nowhere!

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