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Gilded Serpent presents...
Western Dancer's Guilt
Response to The Ethics of Fusion by Naajidah
by Miles Copeland

For those of us Americans who have spent their lives growing up in foreign lands, thereby living a foreign culture on a daily basis, knowing the local people up close and personal as PEOPLE, we tend to view “culture” differently from Americans looking in from the outside with untutored eyes.

Unlike the attitudes of the European colonists before us we Americans (relatively fresh to the world stage) did not automatically look upon the local inhabitants as fundamentally different from us but basically people more like us than not.

Some could be jerks, some funny, some inspiring, some frustrating just as one would find among local Americans growing up in Des Moines. Of course there are always cultural differences but we tended to see these as minor -- for example: as an American Protestant might regard a fellow American in the neighborhood who was Catholic or Jewish. However we did have one thing in common with our local friends that an American growing up in Des Moines would not have. We both came to recognize what we came to loosely call the “White Man’s Guilt Contingent”.

Different groups of Americans growing up elsewhere may have adopted a different term, but the idea would be the same.

We could also call it “The American Guilt Syndrome”. The phenomena is basically this: well meaning Americans feeling guilty for the success of our culture and its often intrusive impact on local cultures.

When we see fast food chains turning every American town into carbon copies of each other, we feel bad seeing the same thing happening all over the world. Generally, ex-patriot Americans don’t like this much either, but Oh boy--did we welcome good American Hamburgers and milkshakes getting to Beirut! So did the locals who thought this was cool too. Both of us still went and bought falafel and shawerma but now we could enjoy both. Hell, even in France where they know good food they had Le Drug Store right there across from the Champs Elysees and it was as full of French people as a sushi bar in LA would be filled with Americans of all stripes. I don’t think the Japanese feel that the thousands of sushi bars across the world are examples of foreigners stealing their culture. We Americans living abroad, and the locals as well, tended to look with amusement and derision on those Americans more concerned for local culture than any local would ever have been. If anything the locals found such support condescending as if they could not defend themselves and needed Americans to be concerned for them.

The “White Man’s Guilt” groups often reacted to their shame by voicing at every opportunity their appreciation of local culture while at the same time as offering disdain for Western intrusion and commercialism. The idea was that these cultures had some special aspects that would be lost and we would be the ruin of these precious societies. Well, it’s quite true that much culture has been lost which in some respects is a tragedy. However, the “Guilt Groups” would never come to terms with the simple and undeniable fact that with “advanced society intrusion” also came the cures for horrible diseases, dramatic increase in life expectancy, decrease of infant mortality, eyeglasses so one could see, hip replacements so one could walk again, education, food on a regular basis, electricity, cell phones–all sorts of stuff we take for granted. Additionally they would also never come to terms with the fact that the people all over the world want to watch TV, drive a nice car, play video games-- just like we do. If we do it, and let our offspring do it and we pass laws insuring such freedoms so we can all do it who are we to interfere in other countries or be concerned for other societies wanting the same benefits even if it also destructive to some aspects of their traditional culture.?

Sorry everyone, people are not so different as cultural purists would like all of us to believe, and that is a good thing in my view as it undermines the foundations of racism entirely.

If we were to really preserve any culture, like that of the Polynesians, we would have to eliminate everything from the outside. Not only is this impractical today in an ever shrinking world but the Polynesians themselves would be horrified at the thought that they could not have electricity and all the other good stuff. The only way to pull it off would be a government exactly like Afghanistan had under the Taliban. We all know what that meant for the general population especially its women. The Taliban was built on a cultural purity concept wrapped up in a primitive interpretation of Islam . The Taliban recognized very well and quite correctly that you cannot preserve a belief system (read culture) with any “purity” if you allow outside influences that are fun, life preserving and enhancing. Because the average person is basically the same and will want the same things if exposed to them. Consequently TV, music, movies, dancing, books (except one), and education of women were banned by the Taliban

Naajidah’s concern for Polynesian culture could be an example of the “White Man’s or American’s Guilt” group that I have been writing about. I say this because she is NOT Polynesian nor has any official status to represent Polynesians and here she is writing about being concerned for them whereas they are unconcerned. I do not question her concerns, which I am sure are genuine, but I hardly think the Polynesians themselves would object to people all over the world becoming more interested in their culture, even if it is through one dance troupe offering a variation on the theme, and doing it expertly and beautifully. It could even help Polynesian tourism which is big for them. Meanwhile I can tell you that I have been warmly received by the Polynesian dance organizations I have been in contact with to buy music. Additionally I have even been asked to help them promote their shows in America because they are not having great success breaking into this market. I and Sonia have in fact been invited to Tahiti and are working on plans to go. We will film the experience to include in Sonia’s forthcoming “Bellydesian” DVD.

It is a good question when Naajidah asks, “When is copying exploitative and when is it respectful?” I ask this. Should Americans be “horrified” by the Beatles and Rolling Stones playing Rock and Roll (a pure American cultural invention) and changing it somewhat?

Is the British music community exploiting all American blacks today? I personally have not heard the protests and I have been in the music business for 37 years. Now that the general practice of cheating musicians and song writers out of their royalties are over (as happened in the early days of the music business regularly) I have no doubt that they are all happy when their work is utilized by others because they get paid for it just like the Polynesian musicians I have licensed music from will profit from the BDSS and Sonia’s work.

Naajidah might have a greater case to argue if Polynesian dance were all about religion. In practice, Polynesian dance has become largely a tourist attraction, as is Hula in Hawaii and visitors are encouraged to participate. Meanwhile I can assure Naajidah that in no way is anything in our show meant to “insult” some religious sensibility. If on our trip to Tahiti, I was to learn different we would react accordingly. I should also add that Sonia herself has danced professionally in the top Polynesian troupe in the USA for a number of years before joining the BDSSl; so she knows a thing or two about the dance and would never be disrespectful in any way. That is just not Sonia.

If I was to don my cynical hat, I would offer the opinion that the only people I can see becoming “horrified” at the inclusion of Polynesian moves, costuming and styles into one of our dances, would be competitors who want to find fault with our show. Though I don’t think for a minute that is where Naajidah is coming from, I could easily assume as much, as she does perform Polynesian dance. We have certainly had similar criticisms from some bellydancers suggesting our dancers "do it wrong,” which is strange, of course, because there is no agreement even in Egypt with “what is right”.

People have occasionally suggested Arabs would be “horrified” by the inclusion of the Tribal style in our show but I can tell you that this style is extremely popular with Middle Easterners who come to our show.

From reading posts on the various bellydance sites, I think it is fair to say that the bellydance community certainly has its own “White Man’s Guilt” contingent. Occasionally, it is suggested that at some point or other the BDSS are “insulting” Arab culture. Given that the status of bellydance in the US is far higher than it is in the Arab world, I don’t think there is any danger of that being taken seriously. In fact, in the entire three and a half years of the BDSS existence I have had not one Egyptian and indeed only one Arab profess to be upset at the BDSS as some sort of cultural affront.

Quite the contrary. The only critique from an Arab source was the number two executive in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture who insisted (as a cultural favor) that I NOT include bellydance as part of Egyptian culture because he found it embarrassing.

Later, after having been accepted by the Director of the Cairo Opera House to allow the BDSS to perform there I received a curt rejection notice stating they did not allow “such art” in that venue. At least he called it an “art”. The committee apparently had overridden his acceptance and has never allowed bellydance to be performed at that venue. Interestingly, when the Director accepted for us to perform there, it was on condition that not one single Egyptian or Arab bellydancer be in the troupe.

In support of my “guilt” thesis, I put forward the fact that the only people criticizing the BDSS on cultural grounds are Americans and other Westerners. I am sure some have genuine concerns, but I would suggest others are simply self-serving attacks professing the supposed BDSS lack of “authenticity” versus their “authenticity” as a means to sell their take on the dance in competition with us. In still other cases, I am told, critique is driven by the apparent fact that attacking the BDSS gets attention for the attacker, making them more known in the community. I generally find this flattering.

My only objection is when such attacks make this art seem petty and amateur to any outsider peering in to see what is going on in an art finally on the move upwards in mainstream acceptance.

As with most posts on the internet, the bellydance community eventually sees where someone is coming from and only valid critique sticks. Overall, I have found it a very fair community, certainly more so than the mainstream music business I have experienced. I continue to enjoy the dialogue and controversy as it gets people thinking out of the box (including me) which every art needs on occasion. I hope Naajidah will take my response in the spirit it is given, and I would welcome talking to any of her Polynesian friends that feel that what we are doing is in any way offensive. Meanwhile, we will continue to include Polynesian influences in at least one number of each show as I would hate to forgo the beautiful work Sonia and the others in the troupe do. Our fan mail in support of it also makes me committed to doing this for the long term.

BellyDance SuperStars 2005 show in San Francisco Herbst Theatre, Photo by Monica Berini

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Ready for more?
3-27-06 The Bellydance Superstars Show In Perspective by Miles Copeland
There are many factors to balance, and ANY show can be improved. The point is to also know the limitations that one faces in doing all the things one would like to do.

3-3-05 The BDSS Experience and Miles Copeland; Doing What He Does Best by Sausan
Even though Miles Copeland’s vision is similar to that of mine and the majority of belly dancers I have canvassed in my lifetime, he and I differ in our mission approach to elevating the dance, and this is where the discussion became a heated debate.

2-14-05 Taking Good Care of our Stars by Miles Copeland
Most of all, as we now need them consistently; we have to free them from financial worries by giving them job security including such things as health insurance.

12-5-06 The Ethics of Fusion by Naajidah
If the culture that you’re borrowing your moves from objects to your fusion, does it matter? Are you being respectful or exploitative if you borrow steps from a culture that doesn’t want their music and dance used that way?

11-28-06 Back to Basics by Najia Marlyz
Belly Dance is most meaningful when we define it as a communication of mutually held emotional response and truths between people

11-17-06 Interview with Safaa Farid by Leila
These days there are times I feel I've seen everything an Egyptian dancer can do in the first five minutes of her show. She doesn't change. But foreigners study the dance very hard and they put much time into their show so that is it interesting for a whole hour.

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