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Gilded Serpent presents...
Academics and Belly Dance, Two Books
Review by Rebecca Firestone

Over a year ago, Amina Goodyear's Giza Club met to discuss the import of two new books that had to do with Middle Eastern dance, belly dance, and folkloric dance. I was the only person who managed to get through both of them by systematically penciling them over coffee before going to work. [Ed note- not so! At least a few people in that room have read these book!]

Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism & Harem Fantasy
edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young

Let's start with the title. Every "hot" word you can think of is in there, including the recently coined terms "Orientalism" and "Transnationalism". Does that justify this book's $40 price tag? Well yes, if you need to read it for a class. Otherwise, I'd recommend borrowing a copy from your friend, after you convince your friend to buy it by citing this review.

The book contains an interesting and eclectic collection of essays, somewhat marred by sloppy editing and post-modern jargon. A few people really had some axes to grind. I had enough just to re-read the book to write this review; I can't evaluate the historical accuracy of any of the claims or assumptions that were made. Some of them were entertaining, to say the least.

The essays ranged from "Belly Dance: An Urban Folk Genre" to "They Said She Could Dance on a Single Tile". There's a good historical Introduction section that touches upon the themes of the essays and provides a brief survey of events and people. Authors included Andrea Deagon, Najwa Adra, and others. Most seem to hold professorships at various universities.

You will need to get comfortable with words like "Orientalism", "imperialism", "the male gaze", and "the colonized body". Orientalism, a word popularized by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in the 1980s, essentially claims that "the West" has created a synthetic "mysterious Orient" in order to exploit and dominate it. It's what they used to call colonialism, except Orientalism is more of an intellectual exercise, a fantasy, and what is our dance about if not fantasy?

At times the jargon went a little too far. For example, "popular performance forms revolve around a transnational interplay of images which ultimately creates a global discourse." I had to get out my Magic De-Coder Ring to figure out that this might mean something like, "pop culture rips off from everywhere until it all looks the same." But I guess people don't get a Ph.D. for stating the obvious. 

The whole "trans" thing got me going. What the hell is "transnational"? How's it different from "global" or "world"? Is it anything like "transgender", "transgress", or even "trans fat"? Maybe it's an attempt to erase old boundaries (the ones created by Orientalists, who are bad), and replace them with an overall resistance to any sort of categorization into This and not That.

Specific essays did at times take various positions, sometimes almost to the point of polemic. At other times, they were revealing viewpoints, or simply detailed examinations of aspects or historical personages that I had never thought to consider before. 

Several of them seemed like detailed treatments of things that I already knew about firsthand, written for a narrow academic audience, like an anthropologist who studies junkies in order to analyze their slang for a linguistics degree, bypassing the sometimes tragic human conditions in which they live. The thing to ask is, "Would this essay be interesting to someone who wasn't already a total belly dance nerd?"

The one that was really out in left field was Stavros Stavrou Karayanni's attack on Gustave Flaubert under the guise of presenting his private journals. He quotes extensively from Flaubert's letters and diaries to prove that this famous 19th-century French novelist turns out - surprise! - to be a total horndog. Is this really news? What value does this new viewpoint have to offer? Karayanni had plenty of historically interesting content in there, but I could have done with a less snide tone.

Sometimes it hit close to home. Frequently there were mentions of people I'd heard of, or met. People like Carolena Nericchio, who are still doing their thing, right up the street from me. Often I would come across some observation about American feminists and said, "Hey! They're talking about me!"

If I had to re-read every goddamn word I'd be sitting here till the sun exploded in its old age, turning the earth into a charred lump of coal. I have penciled notes in most of it, so I must have read them all at some point.  At the risk of turning this review into a fourth grade-style book report, I'm going to list the titles of the essays to at least give readers an idea of what is in this book. This is assuming they're still considering plunking down those 40 bones.

  • Belly Dance: An Urban Folk Genre - Lively, informative description of the complex place that dancing holds in Middle Eastern societies.
  • The Male Dancer in the Middle East and Central Asia - Historical descriptions of the famous dancing boys of Turkey and elsewhere, based on travel writings.
  • Dance and Jurisprudence in the Islamic Middle East - Discussion of Islamic law and its applications to dance. How many of us belly dancers know or even care what the "Hadith" is? 
  • Dismissal Veiling Desire: Kuchuk Hanem and Imperial Masculinity - Poor Gustave Flaubert, can't get off with a dancer-prostitute in foreign climes in peace. Interesting descriptions of her clothing and dance style.
  • Dance & the Dancer in Egyptian Film - Discussion of how dancers are portrayed in Egyptian films, including their semi-underworld social status.
  • An Evening in the Orient: The Middle Eastern Night Club in America - Traces the origins of these nightclubs, all gone now, where my teachers learned their craft. Written for musically literate readers.
  • La Meri and Middle Eastern Dance - Historical bio of both La Meri and Ruth St. Denis, two seminal figures of early 20th century American dance. La Meri may have been the first dance ethnographer to really explore regional forms of Oriental dance in an attempt to learn them rather than merely appropriate them.
  • Arabian Coffee in the Land of the Sweets - The Orientalism in "The Nutcracker Suite". 
  • The Dance of the Seven Veils: The Revision of Revelation in the Oriental Dance Community - Explores how the themes and archetypes of Salome have inspired (mostly) female dance artists.
  • Body Image Identity: Americal Tribal Belly Dance - Discusses Jamila Salimpour, Carolena Nericchio, and John Compton.
  • Spirit from the Body: Belly Dance as a Spiritual Practice - A hard-hitting critique of recent trends such as Goddess dancing, birth dancing, and belly dance as female empowerment. This was the one where I really said, "Hey, that's ME she's talking about!"
  • They Said She Could Dance on a Single Tile - A strange little essay that was apparently originally a performance piece.

The back contains many interesting (and grainy) photos. They add texture. I have to say that there's plenty of "texture" in this book overall, even in the far-out parts. By texture, I mean just a sense of richness of description that by itself is inspiring and also specific. 

So... I paid $40 for it, and now that I've written all over my copy, I guess I'll be keeping it. Maybe the weird sensationalistic vibe is just an attempt to keep afloat in the cutthroat world of academic publishing. It's enough just to have academic researchers who are paying serious attention to Oriental dance. And, strangely enough, I DO think every belly dancer should read it, even if they can't afford to buy it. Why? Well... so many of them have never applied a critical or rigorous lens to what they're doing, and I think that every so often it's good to step back and take a fresh look.

And now, on to the other book.

Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation, and Power
by Anthony Shay

After reading Shay's work in the first book, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and vividness of this one. Although Shay has a definite bias, which shows particularly in his writings about Egyptian dance, he also has produced a very wide-ranging examination of the complex artistic, cultural and political factors that produced some world-renowned state dance companies such as the Moiseyev Ballet and the Mahmoud Reda troupe.

A self-described "folk dance ensemble junkie", Shay has spent years observing, learning, performing, and participating in folk dance events including dances of Greece, Hungary, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Iran, and Bukhara - to name a few.

He wrote this book to address a perceived gap in dance scholarship that ignored state ensembles "in favor of a narrow and detailed focus on Western theater dance forms... or 'authentic' dance in the field."

The book opens with a description of the ironic contrast between CNN's coverage of turmoil in the Mexican state of Chiapas and the lighthearted "fun in the village" as he calls it, which is the image portrayed by not only Ballet Folklorico but other companies such as Mahmoud Reda's theatricalized Egyptian dance. State dance companies served as cultural ambassadors, and sometimes instruments of propaganda. 

National dances, aside from their charm, can be cynically employed to symbolize the "nation-state" which often means the ethnic majority in places like the former Soviet Union, at the expense of marginalized groups who officially don't exist, or if they do, their official portrayals are often distorted to serve the purposes of the ruling regime. Whose dances are they, then?

This is not a new phenomenon, either. Louis the XIV used dance (and architecture) to display his power. Persian court miniatures depict dancers, musicians and other entertainers as part of the panoply of the royal court.

Shay makes a contrast between ethnicity (older, prehistoric tribal identities) and nationalism (relatively modern sense of national identity). Ethnicity views folk dances as artifacts, and nationalism uses folk dances as symbols.

The thing I liked best about this book was the descriptions of the artistic approaches and the performances themselves. He sensitively and vividly describes costuming, choreography, music and musical instruments, the atmosphere, and the attitudes projected by the dancers themselves in a way that I would not have believed possible. Even when he seemingly disapproves of some of the compromises made by certain directors, Shay continues to praise their good points and to treat their attempts to address complex issues as worthy efforts even when they might fall short of what he would have wanted to see.

Most of the Gilded Serpent readers will probably go straight to the chapter on Egyptian dance first. I found myself pretty much in agreement with his assessments, which are liberally sprinkled with quotes including some very biting remarks from our very own Morocco, who pulls no punches.

It would be most beneficial if the GS readers were to explore the broader elements set forth in the book as a whole. Most of us don't think about these issues that deeply, except to feel a vague sense of pity for any woman who voluntarily assumes the hijab. We think it's OK to borrow from anywhere and everywhere, because none of that stuff has any meaning for us other than as pretty or exotic imagery. Shay describes some folk dances as they are presented closer to home, where the manner in which a group is portrayed can have a direct impact on how that group is perceived and treated.

The writing is excellent - lucid, straightforward, and evocative. It'll take a bit of work to get through it, but not as much as, say, reading toxic-waste environmental cleanup reports at one's day job. I found it to be deeply thought provoking and would recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in any sort of national, ethnic, or regional dance.

Oh... and it didn't cost $40. More like $20 or $22, if I remember correctly. Clever readers will buy this one, and make their friend buy the Orientalism one... then you can both swap.

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