Gilded Serpent presents...

Crossing the Chasm

Cultural Sensitivity and Bellydancing

Leila Farid

by Leila Farid
posted July 16, 2014

In my family there is a cocktail of culture: Native American (various tribes to varying degrees), Samoan, Mexican, God knows what kind of European, English and now Egyptian.  Racial jokes fly around the table at our family gatherings – we are impossible to offend.  My cousin’s blond, blue-eyed kids get dirty looks at the Indian Health Center and my sister’s family blend when they go on vacation in Hawaii.  People speak Spanish to my half Egyptian kids when we visit my mom on the reservation where I grew up and the most exotic thing in our family is the Englishman that my sister married.  None of us can understand his accent.  In short, we are mutts.   Culture was something to be lived.  White and brown made fun of equally – if it was funny, it was fair game. 

I think I have always "taken" the things I like about Egyptian culture and the things I didn’t like, I made off-color jokes about them.   Given that, I may not be the best person to talk about dance and culture.  I am not an anthropologist.  But lately I had been rolling this subject around in my head.

How do we as dancers feel about the culture behind our dance?

There is no cultural deterrent from taking a belly dance class.  Anyone can use any dance form for fitness.  The issue comes when dancers start to perform.  As performers, whether we like it or not, we are representatives of the dance and the culture it sprang from.

I wasn’t drawn to the cultural side of belly dancing when I first started.  I liked the costumes, the exoticness, and the challenge of learning the movements.  I liked being around other women and dressing up.  It wasn’t until I started performing in Arab clubs that I wanted to try and understand more about the culture.  I felt like I was in a bit of a fog, as I, the performer, knew so much less than the guests about the music and culture of my dance.  It made me want to find out what I was missing. 

The first thing that struck me about the people I met at the clubs was how generous and welcoming they were.  Dinners and drinks were always offered.  People would always come up and talk to you after the show.  Guests at the club would invite me for lunch with their family the next day!   There was an openness that seemed different than the typical American experience. 

I quickly learned that the dancers who danced for the Arab community and those that didn’t separated themselves. The, rest of the dance community called us the "club girls" and an invisible line was drawn.  They indicated the Arabs thought less of us because we were dancers – that they didn’t respect us (the friendliness of the patrons was just a come-on when offered by men).  I always figured it was no worse than when my red neck cousins who snickered every time the subject of my belly dancing was brought up at family gatherings.   I also thought it was interesting that the same dancers who condemned us for dancing in the Arab clubs always reserved the VIP seats in the front row at haflas and shows for Arab guests. It felt that we as foreign dancers needed to be accepted by the Arab community in respectable, non-Arab venues.

It was dancing in the Arab clubs that I started to learn about Arab culture and start to appreciate it.  I began to form the idea of going to Egypt to continue learning and the club patrons encouraged me.  I had started belly dancing by watching videos of Fifi Abdo and Lucy.

Now I wanted to see where they came from as dancers, the culture that produced the dance, and not just the pyramids and the sphinx. 

It was in my newbie dancer phase, obsessed with all things about dance in Egypt, that I came across an old article in a dance magazine.  It talked about Egyptian weddings and a foreign dancer in Cairo wrote it. I was instantly struck by the tone of the article. The author seemed condescending when talking about the culture of weddings and the guests attending, suggesting that weddings were monotonous and boring and going on to describes one bride as a "horse".  I was shocked. I wondered how someone who felt so superior to her audience could have any real connection with them. It seemed that there might be similar predicaments in Egypt within the foreign dance community as in the states.  Even the people who had gone to Egypt to perform separated themselves, at least in attitude, from the locals.

After arriving in Egypt I found that to be true in many cases  Most foreign dancers had contact only with each other or with costumers or choreographers in the industry. They performed for Egyptians but kept their distance. Now in the day and age of blogs, it is easy to find out how a foreigner dancer feels about Egyptian culture, they write about it daily.  

I have read a few blogs and they seem to have 2 main topics:

  1. Dancers write about their skill in fitting into or succeeding within the Egyptian dance scene. They write about shows where they are mistaken for being an Egyptian or where they receive approval from Egyptian audiences, as the highlight of their performances.
  2. Dancers also write about how they see themselves as  "taking-on" (or at least pointing out) what they see as the pitfalls of Egyptian society.  Describing Egypt as full of animal abusers, sexist men with pubescent minds and entertainment people who see dancers as something only to be used and abused.

It seems the ultimate goal is to pass as Egyptian in the dance but view the culture as lacking in terms of western standards. There is a kind of schizophrenia: to crave to be accepted in the art by Arabs but to constantly point out what is seen as negative aspects of Arab culture and to impose what is believed to be proper behavior on that culture.

Some critics of the second theme of these blogs have offered the advice: "If you don’t like Egypt, then go home." I think it is a bit more complicated than that.  Working in Egypt as a dancer is not easy and may turn even the most optimistic performer into a guarded and suspicious person. Dancing itself may tend to alienate foreigners from Egyptians leaving dancers with very few Egyptian friends. All dancers in Egypt suffer from a certain stigma as performers. Our role as dancers in the society is complex. We fulfill a need that has many levels.  It involves artistry, sexuality, immorality, sweetness, wantonness, and the ability to be reformed.   Dancers are risk takers. They risk their reputations for the money and accolades of performance.

The idea of dancers being admired and despised at the same time is woven into Arab culture and difficult for Westerners to understand. It may create disappointment and resentment as a foreign performer discovers this. 

So how do we start to change the consciousness of people who see our profession as base, both inside and outside of the Middle East? I think it must start with a good understanding of the culture behind the dance, by condemning the culture or completely disregarding it in our art form, we have lost touch with our artistic role in society and thus have lost the ability to alter it.

In our dance community as a whole, there is a chasm between appreciating the dance and appreciating the culture that it comes from. The dance community has started on a journey, without conscious malice, to attempt to make the dance better than the culture it springs from, to lift it above the society that created it, and to gain respect for dancers by Un-Arabizing the dance.  I think that if this journey is successful, the results may not be appealing.

While I was considering this point, a friend pointed out to me that our first duties as performers are to our audience and if there are no Arabs in the audience, then we have no responsibility to the culture. I believe that even without Arab audience members, belly dance will suffer if the cultural aspects of it are ignored.  Take for instance, Salsa and Tango after they were initiated into Ballroom Dance sport. They are now seen by a huge non-Latin audience and to suit the tastes of the sport and it’s followers, they have become athletic and impressive. They have also become, in my opinion, strange and soulless. There seems little of the passion and romance, lost in leaps and lifts in this new "Latin" dance, of the dances when you see them performed in clubs. Belly dancing is already traveling this route.

Gone are the Arab clubs in the West and dance has become big business in festivals around the world and in the Middle East making belly dance easy prey to Westernization, even by Arabs. Want to teach more: make it palatable to westerners.  It is easy to teach a choreography based on a complicated movement. It is difficult to teach someone to understand the words of a song, understand the cultural context behind the words and interpret the song as it speaks to them on the spot.

I have spoken with quite a few of the Egyptian dance superstars of the past.  When the subject of foreign dancers comes up, they shake their heads and say, "They have so much desire to learn our dance, but when they dance it, it says nothing to me." Azza Sherif took it a step further. She went up on stage during one of the exuberant performances of the participants at our dance event here in Egypt, and told her to "Stop!" What she was doing had nothing to do with raqs sharki. She was doing acrobatics. She told the girl to start over but to dance this time."

There is something missing in Belly dance today. This may be what some people of Arab descent are taking offence to, (such as the "Why I Hate White Belly Dancers" article), the lack of acknowledgement of the culture behind the dance.  As foreign dancers we tend to copy what we see as "Arab style" without really understanding the reason for it. To imitate and to understand are two different things. Of course we must add our own personal touches to our own dance; we are entertainers in the end. We will have something to say that is unique to ourselves, as foreigners and we should embrace it. But we also must acknowledge the culture that produced the dance and have enough understanding of it to make our own choices within this context.

To illustrate this point, here are some examples of three different dancers performing to the same song. 

Egyptian Superstar Tahia Karaoka:

Egyptian Dancer Dina:

Ukrainian Dancer Alla Kushnir:

It is really not fair to put this foreign dancer next to Tahia Karaoka and Dina but her performance illustrates what happens to dance when it becomes purely movement based. She is a gorgeous woman and her technique is masterful, but where is the feeling behind the technique?  It is such a far cry from the subtle performance of Tahia Karaoka  (not even in a costume) and the smooth coyness of Dina. The dance has become athletic and technical but is completely disconnected from the soul of the song and void of the "Beledi" persona that links this song to the culture.

How do we address this trend? I tend to think, that maybe, the main prerequisite to performing raqs sharki is that you actually like or be willing to explore at least, some aspects of Arabic culture. Liking or having an interest in something means you will dig deeper into it.  You will want to understand it from the cultural side in order to bring a deeper level to your dance.

I love weddings in Egypt. They are loud, formal, late night and full of entertainment. You can hire the biggest star in Cairo to dance at your wedding and while he is singing, throw your arm around him, grab the microphone and help him finish his song. In fact, it is expected.  I like that things are personal.  That people get close to one another. I like that when I dance people talk to me, women hug me, people spontaneously jump up and dance with me. This personal side of Arab culture draws me to the culture and to the dance. It has drawn me in from the beginning of my club days.
I also really like Arabic music. My car radio is always on the classic Arab station, to the chagrin of my 6 year old, who begs me to put on English pop. 

Of course, I grumble about things I dislike in Egypt but I think most of my grievances have to do with the fact that I live in a huge, overcrowded, polluted city (I would complain in much the same way if I lived in LA) and that I am in the arts where anyone will find an overabundance of "interesting characters" in any country. There are some aspects of Arab cultural that I just don’t agree with but there are also some aspects of my own culture I don’t like either. 

Here are some very positive things I can now appreciate from Egyptian/Arabic culture:

  • Patience:  when the people in line at the bank in the states start to grumble after waiting 1 or 2 minutes, I have to smile now.  I met a woman who waited 2 days in line to get her passport in Egypt.  She brought food and camped out.  Patience are all important when dancing in Egypt as nothing happens on the time schedule it is supposed to.  Patience also have helped me to explore a song as it unfolds instead of dancing over the top of it.
  • Skinny is not better: when you lose weight in the Middle East people don’t compliment you, they ask you if you are sick.  I constantly struggle with being too thin and it is kind of nice to eat pretty much whatever I want to keep my weight up.
  • Insha Allah: if God wills it to happen, it will.  And if God does not, it will not. This phrase is almost torture to foreign dancers who tend to expect that things will happen as managers and impresarios say they will, only to find that God has intervened.  It leaves room for a higher power. 
  • Al Hamdulila: To be okay with what you have or for what has happened, even if it is not very much or not the outcome you hoped for. At least I had tonight’s show!
  • And my favorite, because it reminds me of my childhood and that I had forgotten somewhere along the road before I came to Egypt: The ability to laugh at oneself or ones culture and make fun of just about anything (religion excluded).   If you can’t have fun on stage, then what is the point?

I think that I can apply these to my dance and my life in general. I am grateful that belly dance allowed me to explore this with Egyptians. It has helped me to become a better dancer, to be able to enjoy things alongside people and not just as an observer: culture lived.

It must be possible to use our art form to understand the culture that created it and see that culture from the inside.  If belly dancing can give just one person (like myself), even a small bit of appreciation of Arab culture, isn’t it worth it?  Just putting on the costume is not enough.  Figure out what kind of place belly dancing holds inside the culture.  Explore what makes Egyptians and Arabs laugh, passionate, or cynical. Watch Arabic films and listen to Arabic music.   Experiencing culture doesn’t have to be dry like an anthropological thesis, go out and meet people, and you don’t have to live in Egypt to do it.   Arab culture can be fun, raqs sharki is definitely meant to be.  And if you are sincere in your endeavor, Arab people will help you.  If you don’t feel comfortable imposing yourself in the Arab community, there are dancer who try to help bridge the cultural gap with events.

I am ok with being a ra’asa. I like Arab (at least Egyptian) culture just about as much as like I like my own crazy, mixed up culture.  Personally, I think that matters.    

*raqs sharki-A transliteration for the Arabic word for belly dance
*ra’asa-A transliteration for the Arabic word for dancer
*In this article I am referring to belly dance as raqs sharki.  (Not tribal, fusion or folkloric dance).
  • Author’s bio page
  • ed note: The Randa Jarrar article she references is not titled “Why I Hate White Belly Dancers” but “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers”

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