Accepting Our Role as Artists
Politics in Bellydance
Bellydance for Syria raised over $7,000 for the International
Rescue Committee, an organization that responds to the
world’s worst humanitarian crises. Dancer pictured:
Sandra (photo by Michael Baxter)
posted January 24, 2017
As we move into 2017, Gilded Serpent will be presenting voices both from within and adjacent to our dance community that address historical and current issues of cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, and wishtory within "belly dance" – an often frustrating but decidedly globalized term that covers a wide variety of dances.
These have long been hot button topics in the scene. With social media in constant development, Gilded Serpent hopes to remain a stable platform where various voices can be heard, assumptions can be challenged, and conversations can be recorded, in the spirit of providing greater depth, breadth and understanding of these complex topics. —Your Gilded Serpent Editorial Team
“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians…. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a battle for survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics.”
– Nina Simone
Throughout human history, art and current events have been deeply intertwined, building on each other and evolving into a hefty body of work that continues to grow. Countless visual and performing artists use a wide variety of mediums to express their feelings and ideas. These creations are often unapologetically honest, revealing the artist’s place in society, their thoughts on the events of the time, their worries, and their hopes for the future. Artists and the larger movements they form have been instrumental in communicating alternate viewpoints, questioning the status quo, and inspiring social and political action.
These crucial functions are some of art’s most important contributions, placing artists in essential societal roles as dissectors of beliefs, expressers of feelings, and dissenters of popular opinion. Historically and currently, the term "artist" has a far more significant meaning than simply one who creates art.
As bellydancers, we strive to be taken seriously as artists. We often complain that we are overlooked, disparaged, or even discriminated against for our art. While it may not be the direct aim of a cultural dance to question beliefs, how can we expect attitudes toward us and the sources of our art to change without our willingness to take on the full meaning of “artist”?
Additionally, how can we maintain our integrity as practitioners of a cultural art if we do not support the cultures in which our dance is rooted?
I believe that the scope of our work goes beyond simply bringing joy and connection to an audience. We need to speak the hard truths and create greater appreciation for our art. If we choose to study a culturally-rooted dance and wear the name of “artist”, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we are truly ready to step into this role before fighting for it.
While some dancers work intensely to educate the general public and stand up for the cultures and people of the Middle East, I do not see action widely valued in our community. I see dancers detach from the crucial functions of art to examine, express, and motivate. I see them sit back when action is needed. I see them stay silent for fear of other people’s opinions and even criticize those who speak out, stating that issues impacting the Middle East are a separate, undesirable entity called “politics” that have nothing to do with bellydance. It seems these dancers do not realize that politics is part of our daily lives, influencing everything from birth control to taxes. It also determines how we treat various groups of people within our countries and abroad. Politics can drive up the price of food to astronomical heights, create violent animosity toward immigrants, or result in bombings. Whether it’s sanctions, war, or isolationism, the effects of political decisions are felt strongly by people in the Middle East and by people of Middle Eastern origin living in other countries. These are the same people whose passionate dancing, singing, and music we love and feel connected to. These are the same people whose art is the basis of our hobby or living. These are the same people who continue to create art based on their current experiences, including new music and dance styles that many of us use without understanding the politically-influenced words or feelings behind them.
Our deep connection with this region establishes an innate responsibility for bellydancers to acknowledge Middle Easterners’ perspectives about life (which includes art and politics) and to support their well-being along with our own by considering our choices in politicians and policy.
Ignoring the experiences of Middle Easterners while benefitting from their art degrades our integrity and reflects cultural appropriation in its clearest and most detrimental form.
This is real appropriation that needs to be recognized in the bellydance community, yet we seem to focus on who should wear ethnic jewelry or dance with a cane rather than examine this much more significant issue. While our opinions on the degree of responsibility that we carry may differ, I believe we each must contemplate our role, and learn to value social and political principles as they relate to our art.
In addition, it is also our responsibility as artists to back the many factions that make up our modern bellydance community.
We are part of a uniquely diverse group of races, religions, genders, and more who are bound by a common passion. We share many core emotions and beliefs. While it may not always feel like it, we have the capacity to build understanding, work together, and stand up for each other in concrete ways. We can do more than simply post on Facebook. We can make a difference in each other’s lives as an artistic community. It is not the job of an artist to take the easy route of self-separation and apathy, but to help shape policies that support fellow artists.
Opportunities to get involved are all around us. We can bring an understanding of Middle Eastern culture to the general public through lectures and educational showcases. We can seek out Middle Eastern perspectives through literature, stand-up comedy, theater, and concerts (even those that don’t offer dance performance opportunities). We can fundraise for or volunteer with organizations that provide services for Middle Easterners (or women or LGBTQ or people of low income or any other group in our artistic community). We can examine our political beliefs to ensure that we see the whole, interconnected picture with unity and empathy. We can become involved in politics, whether it’s by joining an action group, volunteering for a local politician who shares our values, writing to our representatives, donating to campaigns, or all of the above. With an abundance of readily available information and connections, we only need the willingness to fully step into our crucial roles as bellydancers and artists.
Hafla for Humanity is a global event that takes place in cities all over the world organized by
BellydanceU.net to give back to women in the Middle East. In 2015, dancers raised over $20,000
for Syrian refugees, and in 2016 they raised more than $8,000 for Yazidi women and girls escaping ISIS.
Dancers pictured: Ami Amoré (photo by The Dancer’s Eye Photography), Jane Samira
(photo by David McWhirter).
Author’s bio page
Call your US Senators – 202-225-3121
Have a comment? Use or comment section at the bottom of this page or Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!
Ready for more?
- 11-16-14 Color, Graphic Design for Dancers, Part 2
Now we’ll delve into applying colors in marketing materials, returning to the ever-present concepts of hierarchy and legibility introduced previously.
- 4-10-14 Typography, Graphic Design for Dancers, Part 1
As artists of an often misunderstood dance, we dancers understand that everything we present publicly reflects back upon us as individuals, upon bellydance as an art form, and by extension, the Middle Eastern culture. When presenting these facets in the most favorable light to other dancers or the general public, good design becomes paramount because it is the most unmistakable way to demonstrate our worth.
- 10-11-04 Art, Activism & Magic: Krissy Keefer In Her Own Words
…women dancers are not expected to think and speak.
- 9-22-2016 Life was a Cabaret, My Memorable New York Club Years: Part 1-The Ibis
I sometimes think how fortunate I was to have been a dancer in the 80s and 90s. We were the last generation to enjoy the club years, in the tradition not unlike that of the 1950s through the 70s. Our music was live with some of the finest musicians and singers around, who played and sang songs that touched your heart and made you jump with joy; and dancers that flavored their shows with their own inimitable style.
- 7-23-2016 Iraqi Dance and Its Unknown Dance Styles, Khashaba Music and Dance,
As is often the case with folkloric and traditional art forms, no one knows for certain when the Khashaba style first began to be heard, or when the cultural life of the city began to take notice. The earliest written sources yet found suggest an origin as recent as the 1930s, but some authorities, such as historian Dr. Mohamed Mahdi el Basier, claim that the roots of the Khashaba rhythms can be traced back to the time of the Thawrat al-Zanj, the Zanj Rebellion of 869–883CE.
- 3-22-16 Dancer Finds Body Acceptance After Battling Eating Disorder, Healing and Belly Dance
I could not know then the amazing healing the classes would eventually bring to my life.
- 1-15-16 Cairo Shimmy Quake 2015 a Dancer’s Delight, Something old, something new makes the second annual Cairo Shimmy Quake 2015 an event you can count on!
Although this is only the second annual Cairo Shimmy Quake, it arguably has a history that is decades old, rich in Middle Eastern culture and dance.
- 10-8-15 Translations of 1930s Gossip Column in a Local Cairo Paper, “New and Second Hand Costumes: Our Elegant and Not So Elegant Dancers” &
"Madame Badia Masabni", This article is from the early 1930s and it talks (gossips I should say) about the famous bellydancers of the time and their costume quirks, though not always in a very flattering way. Thank you to KF for the very kind help. [Editor’s Note: This article supliments Pricilla’s articles in The Belly Dance Reader 2, page 38.
- 9-27-15 Tribal Fest Under Fire, Tribal Fusion Stars Quit California Belly Dance Festival as Co-organiser Admits Sexist Facebook Post,
Several leading dancers have withdrawn their services from Tribal Fest after learning of festival co-producer Chuck Lenhard’s involvement in an offensive Facebook group for DJs.
Jan 24, 2017 - 05:01:05
Thank you Lida for your thought provoking essay. I think a related question is: How much of belly dance as a global form is still by style, costume, music or cultural belief system fundamentally connected to North Africa and the Middle East? Or has it evolved within the framework of popular culture an ethos that is more part of specific dance styles and related communities, as in spiritual, tribal, gothic, fusion, etc.? These questions do not negate the important ethical questions you raise but may explain the lack of connection to North Africa and the Middle East that many dancers feel.
Jan 24, 2017 - 10:01:14
Hi Barbara! In my experience, the aversion to politics seems pretty widespread among traditional bellydancers. I think we rationalize what’s comfortable and easy for us. It takes effort and vulnerability to learn, change, teach, and speak up.